149 West 63rd Street
B&W NYC Tax Photo of 149 West 63st Street

View of 149 West 63rd Street from south, Courtesy NYC Municipal Archive

149 West 63rd Street

by Tom Miller

In the summer of 1885, 30-year-old architect William Burnet Tuthill received a significant commission from real estate developer A. A. Hughes—the designing of 14 houses along West 63rd Street.  (Five years later, millionaire Andrew Carnegie would hire him to design Carnegie Hall.)  Tuthill produced a visual mélange, mixing three-story houses with four-story homes, some of them 16-feet-wide, others 18.

Among the three-story houses was 149 West 63rd Street.  Its basement and parlor levels were faced in undressed brownstone, the upper two floors clad in red brick.  A dog-legged stoop rose to the double-doored entrance, and an interesting basketweave panel of brick and stone separated the third-floor windows and cornice.

Despite its handsome architecture, 149 West 63rd Street sat within a marginal neighborhood.  Much of the San Juan Hill District was characterized by poverty and crime.  While the wives of businessmen only a few blocks to the east or south busied themselves with teas and luncheons, women living here necessarily had to work.  On March 20, 1890, the New York Press reported, “St. Joseph’s Day Nursery at 149 West Sixty-third street was opened last evening…The nursery has been open for the reception of children for several days.”  The New York Herald explained that the nursery “is designed for the benefit of working women who are engaged away from home and have no one to take [care] of their children for them.”

Dr. Carleton Simon calmed her down, took the gun from her, and sent her home. 

The St. Joseph’s Day Nursery operated here for about five years, after which 149 West 63rd Street became a boarding house, run by Mrs. Kate D. Thompson.  Her tenants were sometimes problematic.  Mrs. A. M. McKittrick was described by the New York Press as “a pretty and well-to-do widow.”  The pretty widow tended to violence, however.  While at her doctor’s office on February 1, 1896, according to the New York Press, “she became violent and showed the doctor a revolver, with which she declared her intention of killing a fellow-boarder in the house of Mrs. A. H. [sic] Johnson, No. 149 West Sixty-third street.”  Dr. Carleton Simon calmed her down, took the gun from her, and sent her home.

The following day Mrs. Thompson requested her to leave.  Mrs. McKittrick asked another boarder, a Mr. Gibbs, to escort her to a relative’s home, but when they got to the address, no one knew her.  Gibbs then took her to Roosevelt Hospital and dropped her off.  Back at the boarding house, he explained what had happened.  Friends went to the hospital to check on her, only to discover she was not there.  A five-day search turned up no trace of her until a young man arrived at Dr. Simon’s office and “delivered a note from the missing widow, in which she simply gave her address.”  The article said, “She will be looked up to-day.”  (Mrs. A. M. McKittrick, most likely, ended up at Bellevue Hospital’s insanity ward.)

Kate D. Thompson purchased the house from Joseph L. Stanton in June 1898 “for about $15,000,” according to The New York Times.  Owning rather than leasing the house did not necessarily make things easier for her. 

In 1900, for instance, 25-year-old Rose Dumont and her roommate Mrs. Morse, had boarded here for several years.  On January 19 that year, The World reported, “Mrs. Dumont began drinking hard about two weeks ago.  It is said that she has been addicted to liquor for several years, the habit having steadily grown upon her.”  On January 16, Rose collapsed, and a nurse was called.  “Since that time Mrs. Dumont has been raving night and day from an aggravated case of delirium tremens.  She has kept the neighbors awake with her cries.”  Finally, the nurse insisted that Rose needed to be taken to a hospital.  That proved to be easier said than done.

The World reported, “Mrs. Dumont became frantic when [the ambulance workers] appeared and fought with a maniac’s energy against them.  Her screams could be heard a block away.”  It took three policemen and an ambulance surgeon to bodily carry Rose Dumont to the ambulance.  The article said, “Mrs. Morse was prostrated last night and refused to see anyone.”

In 1903, the Riverside Day Nursery purchased 149 West 63rd Street.  Organized in 1887, it was much like the St. Joseph’s Day Nursery.  According to the New York Charities Directory in 1909, it “cares for children, from three months to eight years of age, of working women, who, when able, pay five cents a day for each child.”  An adjunct, the Girls’ Club was formed “for the purpose of attracting through class work of various kinds the young girls of that crowded tenement district.”  The “club” held night classes in cooking and sewing and hosted regular “girls’ and mother’s meetings.” 

“…if you could only see the thinly clad, undernourished small bodies, the ragged, inadequate coats, and feel the little cold hands…” 

In 1936, the institution reorganized as the West Sixty-third Street Community House.  On November 18, The Sun explained, “Formerly the Riverside Day Nursery for infants of needy families, as established in 1889, the organization, now known as “The Friendly House,” has extended its service to include facilities for older girls and mothers in the community of 149 West Sixty-third street. The kindergarten for children in the mornings, and the clubs and classes for school girls in the afternoons and for women in the evenings are supported entirely by voluntary contributions.”

The Great Depression only worsened the plight of the San Juan Hill residents, as painfully laid out in a Letter to the Editor of The Sun on April 20, 1938:

Sir:  We present our plea for help in maintaining our Riverside Day Nursery, established in 1889, now functioning as the West Sixty-third Street Community House at 149 West Sixty-third street, trusting that through the generosity of some understanding and beneficent souls our urgent need for financial assistance will be met.  Food, milk, clothing, shoes, &c. are also sadly needed.  If you could only see the thinly clad, undernourished small bodies, the ragged, inadequate coats, and feel the little cold hands.  Surely it is worth a prodigious effort to save and assist over fifteen hundred of these children and mothers, who every month cross our threshold pleading for aid. Send what you can to 149 West Sixty-third Street.

At the end of World War II, the name had been changed again.  Now, the Neighborhood House, it nevertheless continued to offer help to the needy residents of San Juan Hill. 

Tom Miller is a social historian and blogger at daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com

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