On June 5, 1891, a daring experiment in community service was incorporated under the name of East Side House. The organization was aptly named. A frame house at the East River foot of East 76th Street, East Side House was described in the initiative’s First Annual Report as “an old country residence” without “a pound of plumbing in it.” After standing derelict for six or seven years, the building needed “a thorough cleansing from top to bottom,” a cast-iron range for cooking, and a supply of “Croton water,” from the reservoir on 42nd Street. It also needed books and a bookcase, a writing desk, and a gymnasium—for East Side House was to be a settlement house, an outpost of friendship, learning, and healthy living in one of the city’s most impoverished districts: the Upper East Side.
The rapidly developing area straddled two worlds. Along Fifth Avenue, America’s wealthiest families built mansions on newly laid blocks. During the sweltering summer months, when these affluent New Yorkers took up residence in Newport or St. Augustine, their houses sat empty. In contrast, across Third Avenue between 59th and 86th Streets, as many as a quarter-million residents—mostly Czech, German, Irish , Italian, and Polish immigrants—teemed year-round in tenement houses, tent cities, and the gutter. Only eight houses of worship served the population at a time when local churches filled the roles of school, hospital, library, and social hub. According to some accounts, a saloon or “gin palace” stood on every corner in the neighborhood. The only places for recreation were the streets and the East River.
Progressive lawyer Everett P. Wheeler lamented the plight of the “great multitude” of East Side residents. After exploring the area on foot, he noted, “There was not a single public library … not a picture gallery, not a lyceum” for the education and amusement of locals. He was determined that something should be done for the area’s underserved population, and drew inspiration from the growing settlement movement in England. Recent graduates of Oxford and Cambridge had begun to “settle” the slums of London’s East End, helping to relieve poverty while learning about the practicalities of life. At Oxford House and Toynbee Hall, both founded in 1884, rich and poor residents commingled in pursuit of a single goal: eradicating poverty.
After visiting Toynbee Hall in 1889, Wheeler wrote a proposal to the Church Club of the City of New York advocating the establishment of a settlement house on the Upper East Side. On February 2, 1891, after months of discussion, the club’s Committee on Social and Economic Questions resolved to establish a “new Toynbee Hall,” allocating $250 for the purpose. A true believer determined to “live among those we seek to help,” Wheeler would become the house’s first Headworker.
What was life like at the original East Side House? Like the university men in London, Wheeler and a small group of fresh-faced volunteers (known as “residents”) lived in the building. Visitors to the house were called “neighbors.” At first, activity centered on a Men’s Club and a Boys’ Club, but the doors of East Side House were open to all comers: the settlement’s mission was geographically specific but universal in scope. As Wheeler wrote in the venture’s Third Annual Report,
Those who are unemployed are helped to find work. Those who are in trouble are comforted and counseled. Where houses are unhealthy, the occupants are aided to obtain redress. Where streets are neglected, the proper authorities are appealed to. In short . . . those who help . . . strive to promote the moral, intellectual, and physical welfare of their neighbors.
Inside East Side House, an ambitious array of programs offered the “amusement and instruction” that were lacking on the East Side. From the very beginning there were “dances and concerts, lectures with stereoscopic views, classes in mechanical drawing, and preparatory courses for those wishing to pass the Civil Service examination,” according to one record. A kindergarten was run by a female resident between 9 a.m. and noon each day, and hot food was cooked to fill the children’s bellies. As alternatives to gambling, wholesome board games were ordered for the men and boys from the shops downtown: backgammon, checkers, chess, dominoes, and a new game of strategy, Halma. The bluffside lot was fenced to form a safe playground and the foundations of an old greenhouse were used in the construction of the wished-for gymnasium. Later, a sliver of the East River was roped off to form a swimming pool.
The Men’s Club grew swiftly. Dues were 50 cents per month (to encourage commitment), and by 1893 the club boasted over 150 members. All neighbors were encouraged to take part in the management of East Side House, on equal terms with the residents. When the men were not listening to—or organizing—lectures such as “The Eight Hour Working Day” or “Brotherly Citizenship” (speaker: Theodore Roosevelt), they could relax in the library, smoking room, reading room, billiard room, or sparring room.
In East Side House’s First Annual Report, Wheeler cited the question posed by skeptics of the settlement movement: “What good do you expect to accomplish?” His response was decisive. The residents of East Side House expected to:
become acquainted with the people among whom we live, to understand their wants, their desires, and to become in sympathy with them, so that we can gain their confidence, and may be able not only to give them, but to teach them something better than they have yet known.
By the end of its first summer, East Side House was doing just that. Each day, from dawn until dusk, the old frame house was filled to capacity with neighbors seeking help and hope. Over the next few years, East Side House’s facilities expanded and its reach extended. The reforming spirit that had produced East Side House only intensified as the Progressive Era (1890-1920) matured. In 1896, extension classes for women were offered for the first time, and to further assist local mothers, Wheeler’s daughter opened the Winifred Wheeler Day Nursery that same year.
Wheeler retired in 1901. By 1902, when East Side House opened a commodious brick building on its old site, the settlement was serving five hundred neighbors daily—and approximately twice that number on gala occasions. John Jacob Astor and Andrew Carnegie were supporters. At the urging of East Side House’s Board of Managers, John Jay Park was established on the banks of the East River, a public bathhouse was opened in 1906, and a public library began operation in 1907.
Today, nearly 130 years later, East Side House continues its important work, but in a different neighborhood. In 1963, East Side House moved four miles north, from the gentrifying Upper East Side to the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods. “The move to the South Bronx was a courageous one,” says current Executive Director Daniel Diaz, “we went, and still go, where we are needed most.”
Many things have changed since 1963, but need remains, and East Side House Settlement continues to bring hope, help, and results to its neighbors—130 years after first opening its doors.
Originally published in the 2016 Winter Antiques Show catalogue.
East Side House Records: 1851-1991. Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York.