Places that Matter
Hostelling International New York
Place Matters Profile
Hostelling International New York, the largest youth hostel in the United States, occupies one of the last historic institutional structures in Manhattan Valley. In the late nineteenth century, Manhattan Valley, which extends roughly from W. 100th to W. 110th Streets, and from Central Park West to Broadway, became a desirable middle-class residential district. The neighborhood also hosted a number of charitable organizations, including the Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females. The Association’s Residence, located at 891 Amsterdam Avenue, was commissioned by prominent society women and designed by the preeminent American architect, Richard Morris Hunt, in 1881-83. The Victorian Gothic structure housed poor, elderly women until 1974, when, like many of its former residents, the building fell on hard times. Abandoned, neglected and at the mercy of the city, the Residence was slated for demolition in 1978. However, the local community, elected officials and preservation specialists rallied to save and landmark the building, which Hostelling International New York has subsequently adapted and reused to provide globetrotters of all ages with an affordable place to retire, albeit temporarily.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, the United States was young and optimistic, but the outlook was bleak for its senior citizens. Short life expectancies and the dangers of trans-Atlantic travel meant that American demographics tended to skew toward the lower end of the age spectrum. While children were typically considered their parents’ social security, continuing returns were not guaranteed, as offspring were often unable, or unwilling, to care for their elders. Extrafamilial support systems for the aged and insolvent were usually publically and unsympathetically administered, and female widows with particularly limited legal recourse to their families’ assets frequently found that the poorhouse was their last stop before the grave. In many cases, they would have preferred the latter.
In 1813, a group of wealthy New York women established one of the city’s first charitable organizations, the Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females. According to the Association’s Constitution and First and Second Annual Reports, the board aimed to assist the population that it hoped not to become - poor, elderly women who “once enjoyed a good degree of affluence, but [are] now reduced to poverty by the vicissitudes of Providence.” Incorporated in 1814, the charity initially provided aid to Revolutionary War and War of 1812 widows in the form of clothing, food and money.
With support from John Jacob Astor and Peter G. Stuyvesant, in 1837 the Association constructed an Asylum, as an alternative to the poorhouse, at 266 E. 20th Street. An 1852 New York Times article explained the Association’s application process, noting that candidates would be subject to background testing, visitation and scrutiny, and,
if found worthy, are registered for admission in the order of application. Admissions can only take place as vacancies are made by the death of inmates, or, if one should remove with the prospect of doing better – a case which rarely occurs.
Whether due to unrivaled accommodations or an especially healthy group of inmates, turnover was not high enough to meet demand, and the Association soon required a larger facility. By 1868, the charity proposed to relocate to Fourth Avenue between E. 78th and E. 79th Street, but ultimately the site was rejected. The recession of the 1870s put construction on hold until 1881, when the Association purchased twenty lots of block frontage on Amsterdam Avenue between W. 103 and W. 104 Streets in Manhattan Valley. By the 1880s, the Upper West Side had become on of New York’s most fashionable neighborhoods, such that the Sixth Avenue elevated railway service was extended along Ninth Avenue to 72nd, 81st, 93rd and 104th Streets. Climatic considerations further reinforced the Association’s decision to move to Manhattan Valley. Civil engineer Egbert L. Viele noted that the area was possessed of a “dry tonic atmosphere which is not felt elsewhere in the city. It is more healthy than elsewhere. Elderly people like it here much better, and with excellent reason.” Indeed, by the turn of the twentieth century, the Association’s neighbors included numerous charitable organizations and health care providers, like the Home for Aged and Infirm Hebrews, the Home for the Aged of the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children, Home for the Relief of the Destitute and Blind, and the New-York Cancer Hospital, which later relocated to E. 68th Street as the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
In keeping with their reputation as the gold standard of institutions, the Association’s board hired Richard Morris Hunt, one of the late nineteenth century’s most celebrated architects. The Association noted that Hunt’s “name in itself is a sufficient guarantee that all that pertains thereto will be executed in a substantial manner and in good taste.” Hunt, known as “the dean” of American architects, was the first American designer to attend the French École des Beaux Arts, where he studied from 1847 to 1853. After working briefly on the Louvre, he relocated to New York, where he established the first purpose-built art studio in America at 10th Street. The building, which was destroyed in the 1920s, was once the epicenter of American art, hosting the likes of Winslow Homer and Frederick Turner Church, as well Hunt’s own atelier, which trained Frank Furness, William R. Ware, Henry Van Brunt, and George B. Post. Hunt was the first secretary of the American Institute of Architects, and later, its third president. He served as lead architect, and that of the Administration Building, for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and he helped to found New York City’s Municipal Art Society. He also designed the pedestal for his friend, Frederick Bartoli’s, Statue of Liberty (1881-85), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Fifth Avenue façade (1894-1902). Unfortunately, most of Hunt’s seventy-five New York City designs have been destroyed.
Hunt would become associated with prominent families like the Vanderbilts and the Astors, for whom he designed palaces on Fifth Avenue and in Newport, Rhode Island. By the time that the Association purchased property in Manhattan Valley, the charitable organization was well connected to the Gilded Age circle as well. Mrs. E.D. Morgan, wife of Civil War-era New York City governor and former Senator, Edwin Denison Morgan, was on the Association board. In the 1870s, Mr. Morgan headed the gentlemen’s board, which managed the Association’s business operations. According to Pam Tice, former Executive Director of Hostelling International New York and the building’s tireless historian, Morgan purchased the Residence’s property and secured Hunt for the building’s design. Pam suggests that Hunt, who was then at the height of his career, “went to a meeting with the [Association] women and let them tell him what they wanted, which was ninety rooms, a bathroom on each floor, and a chapel, all for one hundred thousand dollars.” Hunt granted their wishes with gusto. His Gothic-inspired, four story Association Residence contains contemporary, picturesque French stylistic elements, including a slate-covered mansard roof, roof dormers and corner towers. The brownstone rock-faced ashlar basement is surmounted by load-bearing masonry walls faced with dark red brick. For the Residence, Hunt designed a c-shaped floor plan that created a rear courtyard on the property's east side.
The building was occupied in June 1883, and the formal opening was celebrated in December 1883, in correlation with the Association’s seventieth anniversary. The New York Times reported that, “the degree of comfort, almost amounting to luxury, which is manifest in every detail of the establishment, elicited from many visitors yesterday the remark that they would ‘like to be old women.’”
By 1907, the building had reached capacity, and Mrs. Russell Sage donated $250,000 for a southern extension, which included thirty rooms and a larger chapel, complete with Tiffany windows depicting religious themes and icons. Architect Charles A. Rich received the commission for the extension, which was to conform with Hunt’s design.
The Residence housed between ninety and one hundred women, who were attended by a house matron, housekeepers and a small cooking staff. Original criteria for admission were carried into the twentieth century, as the Residence was open to any non-Roman Catholic woman above the age of sixty, who could pay one hundred fifty dollars. She was expected to forfeit all of her personal property to the Association, which would care for her for the rest of her life. However, according to Pam, some women stayed on beyond their allotted time, as several people have reported seeing groups of ghost women moving down the hallways toward them.
At the turn of the twentieth century, modern transportation infrastructure and the construction of the George Washington Bridge changed Manhattan Valley’s physical character. Many of the residences were converted into tenements for Irish and German immigrants, and by the 1940s, the neighborhood included large populations from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. After World War II, the Upper West Side gained a substantial number of high rise buildings, and in the urban renewal era of the 1950s, the Frederick Douglass Houses were built just to the east of the Residence. The highly anticipated public housing projects were erected in phases between 1957 and 1970, but many felt that they ultimately failed to meet the community’s needs. They also prompted a reevaluation of the neighborhood’s historic character.
By the 1960s, the Association had run out of money, and was holding teas and fashion shows to remain solvent. In 1965 the institution was renamed the Association Residence for Women, and the board devised a plan to convert the Residence into a nursing home so as to receive Medicaid assistance. Despite struggling finances, they remodel the building so as to conform to new sanitary requirements. However, by 1974, the aging building failed to meet fire safety codes. The New York Times reported that the board planned to demolish the Hunt building and erect a modern nursing home in its stead.
In response, architect Robert A.M. Stern urged the Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider the historic structure for designation, and local residents rallied to save what they too considered to be a neighborhood landmark. They suggested that the Hunt building could be used by community groups or as a City Hall in miniature. The following year, efforts to publicize the preservation campaign increased, and while students from Columbia University’s Historic Preservation program met with resistance from the Association, they succeeded in having the Residence accepted to the National Register of Historic Places. However, New York State was in the midst of an existing nursing home scandal. It declined to take on a new project, and the Association ran out of funding. The board moved the residents to the Bronx and walked away from the building. The empty Residence soon housed drug addicts and squatters, and turned into an eyesore. During the blackout of 1977, the building caught fire and the entire roof and two upper level flooring systems burned. By 1978 the city had slated the structure for demolition. At risk of losing their local landmark, the community renewed the charge to “Save the Hunt Building.”
In the meantime, American Youth Hostelling (AYH), which had started a bike tour of New York City in 1977, began to wonder why they did not have a facility in New York. According to Pam it was “the black hole of hostelling.” AYH came across the Hunt building, and approached the area’s Valley Restoration Local Development Corporation (VRLDC) about converting the structure into a hostel, a site and building use that could benefit the community. With help from VRLDC, architects, planners, attorneys, developers and public agencies, AYH negotiated the building’s acquisition in 1984. That year it was also declared a New York City landmark.
Renovations began in 1988. The building’s interior was gutted, but the historic mosaic floors and plasterwork, as well as exterior gargoyles and finials, were saved. The hostel opened for business in 1990, and executed another renovation in 2006. As of 2011, the hostel can accommodate 672 guests, and offers internet, laundry and newly-refurbished kitchen facilities. Perhaps most luxurious of all, they offer what is reputedly the largest private garden in Manhattan. It is truly an oasis in the city.
Hostelling International New York offers low-cost accommodations, as well as extensive programming, including walking tours, concerts, comedy nights and sporting events. And whereas the hostelling movement once sought to expose youth to the revivifying effects of the countryside, the thousands of travelers who stay at the hostel every year are actually stimulating the local environment, and economy.
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