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Guide to the Greenwich House Records TAM.139

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
2nd Floor
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2596
special.collections@nyu.edu


Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Alan Ginsberg, Stephanie Muntone and Peter Filardo (2009); Finding aid revised by to reflect portions of collection not microfilmed (2009)

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on November 04, 2020
Description is in English. using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 Record updated by Weatherly Stephan to reflect scrapbooks rehoused by conservators  , October 2020

Historical/Biographical Note

Greenwich House was incorporated in 1902 as the Cooperative Social Settlement Society of the City of New York by Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch with Felix Adler, R. Fulton Cutting, Eugene A. Philbin, Henry C. Potter, Jacob Riis, and Carl Schurz. Under the leadership of its director, Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, Greenwich House provided social services to its largely immigrant clientele, sought to improve housing conditions and recreational opportunities, and developed a variety of educational and cultural programs.

Greenwich House opened in 1902, with nine residents working out of a renovated tenement house at 26 Jones Street. Greenwich House's first challenges were to work to reduce the debilitating infant mortality rate in Greenwich Village, then the highest in New York City, and to ameliorate the oppressive social conditions that attended the neighborhood's population congestion.

Greenwich House's activities and programs reflected the vision and interests of Director Mary K. Simkhovitch (1867-1951). Simkhovitch was born in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and received a BA degree from Boston University in 1890. As a student, Simkhovitch did volunteer work with African-American women and girls. She was a graduate student at Radcliffe College, the University of Berlin, and Columbia University. In 1899, she married Vladimir G. Simkhovitch (1874-1959), a Russian economist she had met in Berlin.

Before founding Greenwich House, Mrs. Simkhovitch had been active in supporting women's suffrage and social welfare legislation, and had worked in the settlement house movement. She envisioned Greenwich House as playing an integral role in the life of the neighborhood -- being a part of neighborhood life, rather than simply a provider to services to the population of the area.

Throughout her forty-two year tenure as director, Mrs. Simkhovitch was active in numerous other organizations. She was active in a number of social reform organizations affiliated with the Episcopal Church; served as president of both the National Federation of Settlements and the Public Housing Conference; and was vice-president of the New York City Housing Authority from 1934-1948. In 1937, she ran for a seat on the New York City Council. Her anti-Tammany electoral campaign was unsuccessful.

In its first quarter century, Greenwich House rapidly expanded, acquiring numerous buildings in the Greenwich Village area. It established Music and Pottery Schools, provided infant care programs, and investigated and reported on tenants' rights, housing laws, and the high infant mortality rate in the area. The House actively supported legislation and other government action to alleviate these and other problems, such as "some of the more notorious saloons."

By the end of the First World War, Greenwich House had clearly expanded its role beyond that of a small social service dispensary. Integral to its growth and success were its residents, the young social workers and middle-class reformers who lived in the settlement house and who frequently worked with promising leaders developed from the client population. In addition to its cultural agenda and housing reform activities, it provided vital institutional support for government programs, a function that further solidified in the 1930's when many programs of the Works Projects Administration were housed at the Settlement.

Beyond its pioneering work in housing reform, Greenwich House set programmatic innovations in other areas. The Nursery School was the first and prototypical program of its kind in New York City. Simkhovitch, an ardent advocate of cultural programs, believed the arts to be essential human services. By 1917, when Greenwich House relocated to 27 Barrow Street, it offered music, theater and fine arts programs onsite and also established art classes in many local public schools. The Greenwich House Arts Committee was initiated with the support of Mrs. Payne Whitney, who later founded the Whitney Museum.

Two classic studies published in the pre-World War I years, Mary Ovington's Half a Manand Louise Boland More's  Wage Earner's Budget: A Study of Standards and Costs of Living in New York City,were products of Greenwich House's Social Investigation Committee.  The Tenant's Manual,published in 1903, was the first of its kind to document tenement laws and tenants' rights. The House also sponsored fairs, carnivals, parades and other community events; presented plays and pageants; and furnished a broad array of medical and social services to community residents.

In the 1930s and early 1940s, national and international events directly shaped much of the activity of Greenwich House. The House needed to respond to changed circumstances -- the joblessness and hunger created by the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, the New Deal and World War II. It was in this period that Mary Simkhovitch was one of the key figures responsible for the passage of the first federal housing act (1938).

Much effort was expended to find jobs for Greenwich Village residents. Greenwich House and Mrs. Simkhovitch had developed extensive contacts in local and national government, as well as in the private sector, and Works Projects Administration programs were located at the House. The local population often sought assistance in finding jobs or WPA positions, as well in dealing with relief agencies. The House also continued its traditional activities and even opened a summer camp for children, despite the financial difficulties that it experienced in this period.

Greenwich House also become a center for community forums on political issues, often centering on opposition to fascism. Greenwich House was not affiliated with any political organization, and permitted a wide variety of organizations to utilize its premises. The only organization known to have been denied use of Greenwich House was the American First Committee. In addition to the political and educational work carried out at Greenwich House (though not necessarily by the House), assistance was given to anti-Fascist refugees, seeking jobs or residence in the United States.

Following the entry of the United States into the Second World War, the Greenwich House was active in the war mobilization effort. The House was involved in civil defense efforts (Simkhovitch became an air raid warden) and a whole panoply of activities to support the war.

Simkhovitch retired as director in 1946, and continued to live at Greenwich House until her death in 1951. She was succeeded as director by Assistant Director Gertrude Cooper (1946-48). Two years later, Cooper was replaced by Music School Director Maxwell Powers (1948-1976).

In the post-war, post-Simkhovitch, period Greenwich House continued to offer cultural, recreational educational and social service programs. Director Powers was particularly interested in the areas of juvenile delinquency and narcotics use, and programs dealing with these issues were created during his administration. Powers was a strong proponent of dealing with heroin addiction and a social and medical issue, rather than through the use of criminal sanctions.

Powers' successor as director, Anita Kurman Gulkin, heads an organization that has provided services to, and been a part of, the Greenwich Village community for nearly a century. Its activities continue to reflect Simkhovitch's commitment to making Greenwich House a part of the community. Some of its programs, such as the Music and Pottery Schools, date back to the first years of Greenwich House; others, such as AIDS counselling, reflect the House's ability to continue to assist the community, while dealing with new challenges.