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Where Schiff Park is now, on the west side of Amsterdam Avenue between W. 136th and 138th Streets, once stood the Hebrew Orphan Asylum. The core of the massive building was constructed from 1882 to 1884 by the Hebrew Benevolent Society of the City of New York to house Jewish orphans. The structure could house almost 1,800 orphans. When the cottage style of housing was shown to be more beneficial for raising children, the society decided to sell the building to fund a new campus in the Bronx, and the building was vacated in 1941. The asylum building then housed U.S. Armed Forces for the City College of New York's Army Specialized Training Program and was renamed "Army Hall." The building was vacated once again in 1955 and demolished. The New York City Department of Parks established the Jacob H. Schiff Playground on the cleared site in 1956.

Hebrew Orphan Asylum in photo postcard mailed in 1910 (H. Hagemeister Co., N.Y., No. 714)

Building, Sky, Cloud, Architecture

Hebrew Orphan Asylum on 1894 map; Amsterdam (10th) Avenue at bottom (Bromley p. 36)

Rectangle, Slope, Font, Schematic

Hebrew Orphan Asylum (green) on 1909 Sanborn map (Vol. 11 part 2 p. 21)

Rectangle, Schematic, Font, Map

The Hebrew Benevolent Society of the City of New York (HBSNY) formed in 1822 with Daniel Jackson as president and Joseph Jackson as treasurer. Their goal was to "ameliorate the condition of the unfortunate of the same fate" residing in New York City and elsewhere. The Jacksons was Ashkenazim Jews, a group that hailed mainly from central and eastern Europe. Another prominent group in New York City at the time were Sephardic Jews with a history in Spain before being expelled in 1492. The latter group had been the first to arrive in New York (New Amsterdam) in 1654 and tended to be wealthier than the newcomers and transient members of the former group.

The HBSNY met in a room in the Shearith Israel Synagogue, a congregation dominated by the Sephardic Jews. The Jacksons and other Ashkenazim Jews split from the congregation and formed their own, B'nai Jeshurun, in 1825. The HBSNY became an affiliate of the new congregation, but still attracted members from the Sephardic community. In 1832, the HBSNY was incorporated by the New York State legislature. In the early decades, the organization aided many families, mainly widows, orphans and immigrants, by aiding them with funds, firewood, and clothing in their homes, and providing jobs. Immigration from Europe accelerated in the 1840s and 1850s; the city's Jewish population swelled to 16,000 by the early 1850s, doubling in one decade. Dozens more Jewish welfare societies were formed in New York City from the late 1840s to the early 1860s.

The first Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Manhattan was established in April 1860 in a four-story, rented building at 1 Lamartine Place in the Chelsea neighborhood. The brick rowhouse was on what is now W. 29th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The building was meant to house up to 30 orphans and half-orphans (where the surviving parent could no longer care for their child). In 1860, the New York State legislature authorized the city's Common Council to grant lots on E. 77th Street near Third Avenue to the HBSNY to establish a permanent orphanage. The three-story building was about 120 feet by 60 feet with two wings, one for housing each sex.

After a couple decades, the E. 77th Street orphanage proved to be too small, and plans were made to move further Uptown to Amsterdam Avenue, on high ground near W. 137th Street. General George Washington had occupied this area in September 1776 during the Revolution's Battle for Manhattan. Work on the foundation of the massive building along Amsterdam Avenue began in 1882, and more adjacent land was bought. The brick and brownstone building was finished in 1884, with few other structures nearby. A cable car/ trolley line began running along Amsterdam Avenue by the new Asylum in 1887.

A musical band was formed by the 1870s at the orphanage; the young men of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum Band played in local parades, fundraising events, and at special ceremonies. The band played at the laying of the cornerstone for a new neighborhood school building, Public School No. 46, in December 1889 at the corner of St. Nicholas and W. 156th Streets. The band played in the funeral procession of Civil War General William T. Sherman in 1891 in New York; Sherman had been a friend of the Asylum's president, Jesse Seligman. In 1895, the band played a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden as part of the Hebrew Fair. The band got to play at home in November 1896 in a ceremony to mark the opening of two new wings of the Asylum. The Gothic/ Renaissance style building was shaped like a backwards E, with a main building of four stories with two connecting wings at right angles, and a small center wing of three stories.

The New York Yankees baseball team expressed interest in buying the Amsterdam Avenue former orphanage property in the early 1940s for a new stadium; they had been sharing the Polo grounds with the New York Giants; the deal fell through.

Bogen, Hyman. The Luckiest Orphans: A History of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York. Urbana, IL. University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Shansky, Carol L. The Hebrew Orphan Asylum Band of New York City, 1874-1941: Community, Culture, and Opportunity. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, United Kingdom. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

New York Public Library (NYPL) Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Picture Collection:

Library of Congress (LOC):