The staircase of Kingston bluestone showed most of its steps worn to a gentle concavity by the tens of thousands of people who have come through the building’s portals in the 125 years since it went up. University Settlement House represented I.N. Phelps Stokes’ debut architectural effort. Carefully renovated and restored over the years to be useful in the present and yet respectful of the past, the structure still hums with activity. When I toured the place, preschoolers were eating a hot lunch, passing chili and rice around their knee-high table with utmost mannerliness.
University Settlement began in 1886 with six boys gathering two times a week in a Forsyth Street basement. At the time, more than 3,000 people lived in the typical Lower East Side block. Immigrants poured into the neighborhood, most desperately in need of basic services. About ten years later a competition determined who would design an urgently needed new structure. Reformers like Stokes and some of his peers took a serious interest in changing conditions, their interest piqued by the galvanizing photography of Jacob Riis. In the new building, limestone and brick and five stories tall, a local could get a bath, take an English lesson, enroll in a kindergarten class (then a radical notion, when it was considered normal for children to work in sweat shops). There was also the adventure of the Metropolitan Museum of Art sponsoring an exhibit of some of its finest works at the Settlement and, moved by the widespread interest evinced by locals in art, to finally open the its doors on Sunday to accommodate people who labored six days a week.
If you ever happen to enter the building (at Rivington and Eldridge Streets), you see the tall ceilings, the gracious dimensions, the intricate stone mosaic work underfoot. Huge sash windows admit copious amounts of light, something we take for granted but that for Lower East residents of the turn of the last century would be a blessing after the cramped, sunless tenements in which they resided. I’m planning to come to the Settlement House some time in the Fall to give a talk about I.N. Phelps Stokes and Edith Minturn Stokes, their commitment to philanthropy, and what led a white shoe guy like Stokes to throw himself into designing the Settlement House. I hope people will come, if only to see those bluestone steps, worn by the tread of all those the Settlement has served over the years.