Past and Present: Brooklyn Orphan Asylum

Photo: New York Public Library

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Brooklyn had a lot of orphans and half-orphans in the 19th century, the result of immigration, poverty, disease, and misfortune. Half-orphans had at least one parent, but that parent was unable to care for the child. Caring for these children became a major part of Brooklyn’s Department of Charity, and in response to that need, many orphanages were built. There were Catholic orphanages, Protestant, Jewish and Colored Orphanages, orphanages for girls only, and for boys. There was also a large city orphanage called the Orphan Asylum of the city of Brooklyn. It was founded in 1833, and was run by the Orphan Asylum Society of the city of Brooklyn, a group of wealthy private citizens which included some of Brooklyn’s richest people, as well as elected officials, judges, and prominent clergymen, such as Henry Ward Beecher. Their first orphanage was on Cumberland Street, near Myrtle Avenue.

The Society soon outgrew that building, and by 1870 was looking for something larger. The Bedford section of Brooklyn was seen as an ideal place. It was in the midst of being developed as a well-to-do area, and most importantly, had a lot of large parcels of available land at good prices, and was along major transportation lanes. Many other charitable institutions would soon follow suite. Funds were raised, and the cornerstone for the large new orphanage was laid in 1870. It soon loomed large on Atlantic Avenue, between St. Andrew’s Place and Kingston Avenue, in what is now Bedford Stuyvesant. The new building was designed by George Hathorne, and was described as being in the “Modern English Gothic” style, a massive building in Philadelphia brick, with Ohio and Hastings stone trim. Photographs and drawings show a beautiful, albeit enormous institution, which would later have a hospital and chapel added to the complex.

The orphanage housed both boys and girls, white only, for most of its history, and was at this location until 1942. By then, with World War II raging, the upkeep on the old pile was seen as too much, and the population of kids was growing smaller. Fostering children in homes had also begun to replace the idea of institutional care. The orphanage re-located to East Islip, Long Island, and changed its name to the Brookwood Child Care Agency. The building was appropriated by the War Department, and was used to house troops before they were sent overseas. In 1945, the City of New York bought the site, and tore down the Asylum in order to build the St. Andrew’s Playground, which now takes up the entire block. It holds a lighted baseball field, basketball and handball courts and other recreational facilities. I really would have liked to have seen this one.GMAP

Photo: New York Public Library

Photo: Googlemaps

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