Brooklyn Structure: A 19th Century Home for the Needy
Editor’s note: A version of this post was originally published in 2013. You can view the original contribution here.
From the 1870s to the 1970s, this complex of red brick buildings at 797 Bushwick Avenue sheltered Brooklyn’s poorest elderly residents.
In 1868, the Brooklyn Eagle announced that a new order of nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, was establishing an order in a building on Dekalb Avenue. The sisters had their origins in France and were founded in 1841 by a woman named Jean Jugan who began taking in and caring for the elderly who were poverty-stricken and whom she saw begging on the streets of Brittany.
By the 1860s the order had grown tremendously and had offices across Europe. The Order wanted to settle in the United States, and in September 1868 the first group of sisters who did not speak English arrived in Brooklyn.
They soon found community support in Brooklyn and began caring for the poor and old. The Order was assisted by Bishop Laughlin, the powerful Bishop of Brooklyn, so they could move from Dekalb to a new facility nearby at 797 Bushwick Avenue on Chestnut Street in 1872. The property could accommodate more than 150 elderly needy people as well as the sisters who lived in a separate residence nearby.
The complex was designed by A. Wanner and consisted of a four-story building with a chapel in the middle and east and west wings for separate accommodation for men and women. Each wing had its own dining room, living room, offices and bedrooms for the so-called “inmates”. (Inmates didn’t have the negative connotation it has now.) The men were housed in the east wing, the women in the west.
Up to 1876 115 women and 76 men lived in the apartment. On March 8, a devastating fire began in the basement of the men’s east wing. The flames rose quickly up the wooden stairs, blocking the only exits. The sisters were able to get most of the men out, including some who were blind and frail but some of those on the top floor couldn’t reach or rescue those who jumped to their deaths from the windows. By the time the fire was extinguished, 19 bodies had been found, most of which had been burned beyond recognition. There was no fire escape in either wing.
The firefighters had saved the rest of the buildings and after the fire the sisters did what they could to keep going. The nineteen men were buried by the sisters on a large piece of land in the Flatbush Roman Catholic Cemetery. Donations flowed in and they were soon able to rebuild the east wing. A sketch of the building configuration made by the New York Herald shows which part of the building burned down.
In 1908 the sisters got another fear of fire when a chimney caught fire and threatened to spread over the roof. This time, however, with a fire escape and a plan, they could all march outside without panic. The fire brigade came and was able to put the fire out before it spread or caused other damage.
Over the years since the 1870s, other facilities have been added to the original complex, including a new wing added by the Parfitt Brothers in 1888 and another by architect H. Murphy in 1938. The house became known as St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged.
In 1970, the sisters were forced to close St. Augustine when new town planning requirements emerged in the late 1960s that made the necessary changes to the home too expensive to make. The elderly who lived there were moved to other facilities, including the Queen of Peace residence in Queens Village, opened in 1970 by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
The next year, the Little Sisters of the Poor rented the Bushwick complex for a school to the City of New York. The city bought the property at the end of the lease and paid only $ 650,000. The facility became PS 386. Today it is home to a charter high school called Bushwick Leaders High School for Academic Excellence.
This building complex deserves a landmark as a major social and charitable institution that has contributed to the growth and life of Brooklyn.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]
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