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Guide to The Boys' Club of New York Records
1876-2002
 MS 3000

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Susan Kriete

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on April 20, 2017
Description is in English

Biographical/Historical Note

Founding of The Boys' Club of New York ("BCNY")

BCNY was founded in 1876 by railroad magnate E.H. Harriman (1848-1909). Harriman apparently conceived the idea after visiting the Wilson Mission School, a charitable institution on Manhattan's Lower East Side that trained poor, young girls in the neighborhood for industrial employment. Deciding that neighborhood boys would benefit from a similar type of program, Harriman rented space in the basement of the Wilson Mission School and opened the Tompkins Square Boys' Club. From its initial enrollment of only a handful of boys, Harriman's organization grew into the largest and oldest boys' club in the country, one that has played a significant role in the history of the New York neighborhoods in which it operates.

Clubhouses

In the early years, Harriman aimed chiefly to provide recreation for the boys, a physical place that would entice them off the streets and into supervised activities. By 1896, membership had grown to over 200 boys, and the three basement rooms in the Wilson Mission School were no longer adequate. In 1901, with money advanced by Harriman, BCNY opened its own, purpose-designed building at Avenue A and 10th Street (the "Tompkins Square Building," later renamed the Harriman Clubhouse). Reflecting the influence of the settlement house movement, this six-floor building featured amenities designed to foster a sense of community and help immigrant boys assimilate to American values, including shower baths, lecture rooms, a library, a natural history museum with butterflies, stuffed birds, and other specimens, a movable stage, and a gymnasium. In 1917, a new addition to the Tompkins Square Clubhouse was completed, featuring an indoor roof pool.

A program of further expansion began in the 1920's, led by then President Charles Sabin, who wanted to establish BCNY branches all over the city. The first additional branch (the "Jefferson Park Clubhouse," renamed the Elbridge T. Gerry, Jr. Clubhouse in 2007) opened in 1927 at 321 E. 111th Street in what is now East Harlem. Selected on the basis of extensive demographic research, this neighborhood was targeted to serve the large influx of Italian immigrants, who at the time made up more than 90% of the community. With the opening of a second clubhouse, the original "Tompkins Square Boys' Club" moniker was no longer accurate, and BCNY officially changed its corporate to The Boys' Club of New York.

In 1954, BCNY opened a "mobile" branch, the Central Park Clubhouse at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue. Instead of constructing another fully equipped building, BCNY decided to lease space and provide basic services to community boys, supplemented by other community programs and the facilities at the nearby Jefferson Park Clubhouse. Its rationale for this approach was that it would afford BCNY greater flexibility to move to a new location as the neighborhood improved. Five years later, BCNY opened the Pitt Street Clubhouse on the Lower East Side (at Pitt and East Houston Streets) to serve as a "satellite" to the Tompkins Square/Harriman Clubhouse. Although the Central Park Clubhouse was closed in 1961, when its lease expired, the Pitt Street Clubhouse (expanded and renamed the Milliken Clubhouse in 1985) continued to operate until 2003.

More than a century after its founding, BCNY expanded its operations beyond Manhattan. In 1992, after taking over the existing Flushing Boys' Clubs, BCNY began operating another clubhouse in Queens (the "Flushing Clubhouse"). By 2001, membership had grown to over 1800 boys, and in December of that year, work began on a new facility. The Marion McMahon Abbe Clubhouse opened on September 25, 2003.

Although BCNY’s programs have evolved over time, the three clubhouses in operation at the time this collection was processed in 2016 -- the Harriman (formerly Tompkins Square) Clubhouse on the Lower East Side; the Gerry (formerly Jefferson Park) Clubhouse in East Harlem; and the Abbe Clubhouse in Queens – remain at the core of a continuous tradition of providing community-based services to underprivileged boys.

Admission and Programs

Initially, membership was free to all boys "who behaved themselves with reasonable propriety." By 1893, a new policy required each boy to pay a penny, for which he received a monthly membership ticket specifying the special privileges to which his membership entitled him. Throughout its history, BCNY has prided itself on having an "Open Door Policy" which admits any boy, regardless of differences in attitude, cultural patterns, or spiritual beliefs. Although adopted at a time when members were predominantly or wholly white immigrants (especially Italians), BCNY continued this policy in the face of changing racial demographics. By the 1940's and 1950's, African American boys made up a significant portion of BCNY membership, which continued to increase throughout the second half of the twentieth century. The records suggest that these shifts in membership also influenced the evolution of BCNY's programs.

Many of BCNY's fundamental programs were instituted by its first professional paid staff member, Francis Hebard Tabor, hired in 1898 as the "superintendent." A 33-year-old Cambridge University graduate, Tabor had spent many years working among the poor of London. Tabor started a weekly in-house newspaper, established a sports program, instituted annual Gilbert and Sullivan operetta performances, and encouraged the boys to form smaller groups or "clubs" headed by member "leaders.” Long after Tabor left BCNY in 1911 (to found the St. Bernard's School for Boys in Manhattan), his programs continued to influence the course and direction of BCNY activities. Increasingly, these activities focused on shaping the character of BCNY members, rather than simply entertaining or keeping them out of trouble. An Employment Agency began in 1905; the athletic program was expanded; and classes were offered in stenography, telegraph operation and to prepare interested members for the civil service exam. With the addition of a pool to the Tompkins Square Building in 1917, BCNY turned out numerous swimming champions, including George Kojac, a 1928 Olympic gold-medal winner, and George "Dutch" Fissler, who in 1927 broke the world's record in both the one hundred-meter and four hundred meter back stroke.

Although athletics have always been a mainstay of BCNY activities, the focus of its other programs have shifted with the times. In 1912, a moving picture booth was installed in the Tompkins Square game room, providing the boys with "newfangled" entertainment every Friday night. In 1918, when the U.S. entered WWI, BCNY began providing every member with a physical exam, and complete dental clinics were opened in 1922. During WWII, additional exercise rooms were added to prepare boys for the Armed Services, and new activities related to the war effort, such as radio construction and communication, and machine shop work, were introduced. After the war, a Veterans Guidance Bureau was established at the Tompkins Square Building, offering job training and placement and continuing education. In the post-war years, arts programs -- including glee club, drama, art classes, music and dancing -- also proved very popular. BCNY also sponsored various events, including pet shows, "Little Sister" shows, and a "Boys' Club Day" at the New York World's Fair. In 1953, members traveled to London for a boxing match against the London Federation of Boys -- which BCNY won -- and a re-match was held in New York the following year, with BCNY again victorious.

The education program, which would eventually be regarded as perhaps BCNY's most significant activity, got its start in 1927 when William Finkelnagel, a former BCNY member and an engineer for Consolidated Gas, established an educational fund. Additional funds for the education program were provided through a legacy from former BCNY director Curtis Wheeler, who died in a tragic airplane accident that same year. But it wasn’t until 1957 that BCNY’s hallmark education program was begun with a bequest from former Trustee Victor Morawetz. The Morawetz Fund established a program to identify, prepare, place and support Boys' Club members at many of the nation's independent boarding and day schools, including Phillips Andover, Mount Hermon, Exeter and Taft -- a program that still operates as the Independent School Placement Program. In many instances these young men were the first students of color to attend these private schools.

In 1982, a job-training program was instituted, reflecting BCNY's increasing emphasis on education and skill development. The Boys' Club Summer School, started in 1985, is held at Camp Cromwell during July and August.

Camps

BCNY also instituted recreational camps that featured preeminently among its early services. The first program of summer camping was developed by Trustee William Carey in the 1890’s, and in 1902 Camp Carey was built at Jamesport, Long Island. Camp Carey was renovated in 1918, and new camps were opened in 1924 (Camp Harriman, for members 17 years and older, on 4,400 acres in what is now Harriman State Park) and 1926 (Camp Tabor on Fishers Island, where boys served as golf caddies).

By the 1950's, development was crowding the area around Camp Carey and camp attendance had begun to drop, in part due to racial tensions between a diversifying membership. In 1963, Camp Carey was sold, and the funds were used towards the purchase of a new Camp Harriman on land in the northeast corner of the Catskills. In 1980, BCNY sold Camp Harriman to the State of New York. Three years later, in 1983, it purchased Camp Northover, later renamed Camp Cromwell, in Bound Brook, New Jersey -- a location close enough to New York City to operate as a day camp. By 1985, Camp Cromwell became the site of BCNY's Summer School.

Organization and administration

At first Harriman and his friends took turns coming to the clubhouse after business hours to spend time with the boys and supervise their activities. As regular attendance grew, a more formal organizational structure was created, with a Board of Directors and an Executive Committee that took care of BCNY's everyday affairs. Both were headed by Harriman. Annual operating expenses were covered by contributions from Mr. Harriman and friends including William Carey, Sherman Evarts, Walter Jennings, Nathaniel C. Fisher, William R. Barbour, and Henry Stanford Brooks, Jr.

On March 24, 1887, BCNY was incorporated and a 15-member Board of Trustees was elected, with Harriman serving as President. After E.H. Harriman died in 1909, Temple Bowdoin became the second president of BCNY, serving until his untimely death at age 51 in 1914. Succeeding him as President were Charles Sabin (1915-1934), E.Roland Harriman (1934-1957), Frederick Pratt (1957-1966), Minot K. Milliken (1966-1986), Carroll L. Wainwright (1986-1994), Silas R. Anthony, Jr. (1996-2006), Edward J. Rappa (2006-2016) and William B. Tyree (2016 - ).

In the 1920's, the Trustees created a new organizational structure, dividing their work into six departments: physical, entertainments, educational, building and equipment, camp and publicity. In April 1927, in anticipation of opening the new Jefferson Park branch, the Board established an Endowment Committee to raise sufficient funds to operate two facilities. BCNY's endowment program had begun in 1909, with a $50,000 contribution from Emma Cummins, the widow of Lorenzo G. Woodhouse, a partner in Chicago's Marshall Field Department Store. E. Roland Harriman, the son of founder E.H. Harriman, became the Club's first chairman of the board in 1957.

In 1934, a Women's Division was founded to help the Board of Trustees raise money and increase publicity. The following year, the Women's Division sponsored a Gay Thirties dinner dance, which was to become the annual spring benefit. By 1938, the Women's Division had established committees dealing with a variety of activities, including dramatics, junior achievement, and theater benefits. It was not until 1968, however, that the Women's Board was formally established. In addition to sponsoring the annual spring and fall benefits (the latter instituted in 1949), along with other fund raising events, Women's Board members regularly volunteer in the clubhouses. In 1989, women were included on the Board of Trustees for the first time.

In addition to the fund-raising events sponsored by the Women's Board, the Club instituted in 1976 -- the year of the Club's 100th anniversary -- its most successful annual fundraiser: the All Sports Hall of Fame Dinner. It was generally held in the late fall, and honors the year's Hall of Fame inductees for each of six sports -- baseball, basketball, football, golf, hockey and tennis.

As the Board of Trustees expanded to meet the challenges of running the organization, BCNY also began building a professional staff to manage the day-to-day operations of the clubhouses and programs. The first paid professional staff, Francis Hebard Tabor, was hired as superintendent in 1898. Under Tabor's leadership, numerous athletic and other activities were instituted and BCNY's fundamental organizational system took shape. In 1911, Tabor resigned to found St. Bernard's School for Boys in Manhattan, and in 1912 Louis DeForest Downer joined BCNY as superintendent, later serving as director and managing director until 1937.

In 1939, around the same time that it was expanding its operations, BCNY consolidated its administration under the leadership of Peter Capra, who served as Executive Director from 1939 to 1962. Soon after his appointment, the board was reorganized into seven working committees -- Special Givers, Law and Trust Companies, Lists, Steering, Publicity, Special Events and Letters and Appeals -- to support the work of the board's Executive Committee, which in effect ran the Club. When Capra, ill with Parkinson's disease, stepped down in 1962, he was succeeded by Robert T. Olson (Executive Director 1962-1989). Olson was replaced in 1989 by his assistant Executive Director, Martin Bunce.

Alumni association

In 1928, a group of alumni founded the Alumni Association to "assist the Boys' Club Trustees in the successful management of the Club." Open to all former BCNY members, the Alumni Association contributed both funds and volunteer services to current BCNY members. George Flatow, one of the founding members, was appointed chairman; his reminiscences and scrapbooks are included in the collection. After WWII, returning vets contributed to the growth of a strong, active Alumni Association. In 1947, the Jefferson Park clubhouse established its own alumni association.