Then&Now: Children’s Aid Society on Sullivan Street

By Brian J. Pape, AIA, LEED-AP

THEN: The Sullivan Street Industrial School at 219 Sullivan Street was designed in 1891-1892 by Vaux & Radford for the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), a pioneering charity organization.

Although deeply rooted in Greenwich Village, CAS’s roots go deeper and wider than that.

Looking back at some early social service efforts, German educator Friedrich Froebel opened the world’s first kindergarten (the word translates as “children’s garden”) in Blankenburg, Germany in 1837. This was a radical move, as children under seven years of age weren’t considered teachable. Froebel also became famous for inventing Froebel Blocks, wooden toys for children. Frank Lloyd Wright credited Froebel Blocks for nurturing his blossoming creativity.

The first kindergarten in America was opened in 1856 by Margarethe Schurz for her immigrant German community in Watertown, Wisconsin. The famous Octagon House was also built, ca. 1854, in Watertown by pioneer settler John Richards, inspired by New York architect Orson Fowler who, in the 1850s, promoted the healthy living aspects of octagonal dwellings. The mansion was donated in 1938 to the fledgling Watertown Historical Society, on which site now stands the home of the first kindergarten. As a schoolboy, this author visited the site several times, leaving an indelible positive impression on him.

In 1873, Saint Louis, Missouri became the first school district to have a public-school kindergarten.

Back in New York City, with over 10,000 children living on the streets, Protestant minister Charles Loring Brace (1826 –1890), a member of the Carmine Street/West Presbyterian Church, along with Reverend William C. Russell and Reverend Benjamin Howland, officially chartered the Children’s Aid Society in February of 1853. Over the course of the century, CAS successfully provided short and long-term housing for children in home-like lodging houses (CAS ceased housing children in 1910), developed a number of industrial schools that taught students trades to facilitate their employment, and contributed enormously to the growth of social services across the country, policies and programs which were replicated widely by similar organizations thereafter. In addition to offering industrial and domestic arts classes, these industrial schools broke new ground by providing visiting nurse programs, free dental clinics, nutritional education, and the first kindergartens in New York.

Child labor was common in New York City’s sweatshops, and social services were virtually non-existent. At the time, the city’s disenfranchised children were perceived as unskilled laborers who could do work needed in rural areas. From 1853 till the last train trip in 1929, more than 200,000 children rode the CAS’s “Orphan Train” to new lives in rural midwestern communities. Starting in 1874 the CAS supported entire families relocating together.

Brace enlisted his friend, architect Calvert Vaux, to undertake the designs of the Society’s dozen lodging houses, characterized by ornamental features that recalled Dutch architecture, meant to contrast with “ugly” surroundings that prevailed then.

The Tompkins Square Lodging House for Boys and Industrial School at 295-297 East 8th Street, ca. 1886, is the oldest extant building (and is landmarked). The 14th Ward (Sixth Street) Industrial School at 630-634 East 6th Street was built ca. 1889 with a terra-cotta panel showcasing the initials of CAS set in foliate ornament above a carved inscription with the name of the school. Over the entrance Vaux incorporated a terra cotta plaque with the letter “A” commemorating the contribution of the Astor family. These earlier CAS designs had Victorian Gothic details, oriel bay windows, and Dutch influences attempting to evoke the feeling and image of a “snug country inn.” 

The Industrial School at 219 Sullivan Street features steep rooflines with Dutch “Crowstep” stepped masonry gable ends and ornamental horizontal bands that unite the sills of various windows. The four-story building was constructed with selected common brick, laid with red mortar, and trimmed with stone. But instead of previous Victorian Gothic details, this design shows a modernist (for the time) restraint, with no pointed arches, no bow windows, and much less ornament. Central orthogonal projections for three windows on the second and third floors are topped with an arched window on the 4th floor.

NOW: In sales websites, this is deceptively labeled as “a modern renovation within the 39’ wide ‘Vaux Mansion,’ an original masterwork by… Calvert Vaux” (and the GVSHP site erroneously says it was razed for a new residential development). Photo credit: Brian J Pape, AIA.

NOW: In sales websites, this is deceptively labeled as “a modern renovation within the 39’ wide ‘Vaux Mansion,’ an original masterwork by… Calvert Vaux” (and the GVSHP site erroneously says it was razed for a new residential development).

By 2009 when the Sullivan Street Industrial School was honored with a Village Preservation Award, it had been renamed the Philip Coltoff Center, in honor of the former CEO of the CAS. Then, in 2010, despite serving 1,000 students in its school programs, CEO Richard R. Buery Jr. said it was no longer fulfilling its mission of helping the poor, since more resources and opportunity were in the South Bronx; it was put up for sale.

The developer Broad Street bought this and adjacent properties, and the designer Rawlings Architects built a new structure in 2014 to work with the surrounding context, including the CAS building, since it was part of the South Village Historic District designated in 2013.

The actual former CAS school exterior facades, both

west and south, were restored and incorporated into the new 25-unit, seven-story condominium addressed as

215 Sullivan Street.

The preserved portion of CAS was then labeled “Townhouse A,” a six-bedroom, seven-bath, 7,436 sq.ft. triplex unit, which last sold for $17,250,000. A comparable new duplex townhouse unit in the building closed at $13,250,000 or $32,500 for rent, for 4,639 square feet, including five bedrooms and five baths.

Today, Children’s Aid, its current modified name, with a brand-new logo and added tag line, “Every step of the way,” serves nearly 50,000 children, youth, and their families at more than 40 sites in the South Bronx, Harlem, Washington Heights, and northern Staten Island.

Most Children’s Aid programs are free for children, youth, and families across New York City, and they are committed to fighting bigotry and racism, said CEO (since 2014) Phoebe Boyer. Some of the early childhood programs provide education on a sliding scale based on need. They accept Medicaid, Child Health Plus, and commercial insurance for health care services provided at their community and school-based health centers.

Children’s Aid has announced plans to move its headquarters from midtown to a new office space at West 124th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem by summer 2020, although that date is probably too optimistic. For additional information, contact Anthony Ramos at (212) 949-4938 or

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