A Magnificent Home for the Disadvantaged Boys of Early 20th Century Brooklyn

Editor’s note: This story is an update of one that ran in 2011. Read the original here.

St. Vincent’s Home of the City of Brooklyn for the Care and Instruction of Poor and Friendless Boys opened in 1869 on Vine Street, near the Brooklyn docks. Soon called the “Newsboy’s Home,” it cared for and sheltered many of the thousands of homeless or desperately poor boys who often worked as newsboys or messengers down by the busy Brooklyn piers. Many of these kids, both American and foreign-born, had families who were too poor to keep them or they were really orphans, their parents dead from disease, crime or any of the combination of ills that poverty brings.

exterior 66 boerum place

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul founded the home “to provide shelter for homeless boys who slept out of doors without benefit of education or religion,” according to Reverend Francis J. Freel, who began the program. It started in 1869, sheltering 20 boys. By the turn of the century, it was home to 200 boys and had programs reaching at least 2,000 more. They needed more room, and construction began on the new building at 66 Boerum Place in 1904.

This large, new six-story building was designed by Franz J. Berlenbach, a Wisconsin-born German-American architect. His father was a builder and carpenter, and in 1863, the family moved from Milwaukee to Williamsburg. F.J. Berlenbach worked in the offices of James Renwick in 1880, and founded his own firm in 1885, where he worked with his father, building mostly tenements and small houses. He became interested in Catholic church architecture, and soon was busy designing churches for the archdiocese of Brooklyn and the Sisters of the Order of St. Dominic.

1906 images

The building on opening day in June 1906. Image via Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Most of his churches are in the Romanesque Revival style, but as the century ended he adapted to the lighter colored materials and more Classical lines of the White Cities/ Renaissance Revival style, which includes this building. The home had a roof garden, a playground, recreation rooms, a gymnasium and bowling alley, in addition to classrooms, dorm rooms, kitchen and dining facilities and offices.

exterior 66 boerum place

By 1915, this building housed an average of 170 boys; by 1921, it was housing 250. As the years progressed, the focus shifted from mere housing to providing tools for success in society. The boys, most of whom were never Catholic, attended local schools and were more integrated into the community.

By the 1960s the boys were being housed in smaller group homes and with foster families. By the 1980s this building was converted into administrative offices and was no longer a residence. In 2014, St Vincent’s Services merged with HeartShare Human Services and provides supportive programming to children, families and individuals.

[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]

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