A search for luxury condos in Clinton Hill might bring you to 320 Washington Avenue, a lovely co-op surrounded by trees and situated on a comfortable street. And, if that weren't enough, it is an historic building, which seems to be a favorite factoid for realtors.
While doing some research into the building's history, it came to my attention that our colleagues over at the Brooklyn Historical Society had just blogged about this very building. It was particularly helpful because I never think to use annual reports as they did. I love a good story, so I decided to see what additional information I could find using our own materials. After all, I was still wondering, "Who were these old ladies and what happened to them?"
The building was constructed in 1851 by the Brooklyn Society for Relief of Respectable Aged and Indigent Females, established through a cohort of churches led by the charitible John Bell Graham. Graham believed "there was no provision for elderly women, accustomed through life to comforts and refinement." In 1899, the name was officially shortened to The Graham Home for Old Ladies. The original structure included rooms for 90 women, plus a chapel, hospital and meeting areas. Over time, more bedrooms, an elevator, library, reading room, and outdoor porch were added. So as to serve the local community, the Home had a residency requirement. In 1852 applicants had to have lived in the cities of Brooklyn or Williamsburg for at least 7 years. By 1951 residents of all New York City were considered.
The Graham Home quickly became a centerpiece of the neighborhood, offering comfortable living for older women. It relied heavily on small contributions, and Brooklynites seemed happy to attend benefit concerts or provide donations of cash or goods. But not everything was perfect. In 1887, a nurse resigned after accusing the matron and hospital nurse of mistreating the ladies. Over the course of several weeks, doctors, pastors and inmates and their family members wrote to the Eagle with their own perspectives. Even the Home's doctor admitted that a stern demeanor was needed because "old people are worse than children." But no evidence was found, and the Home's board dismissed the accusations -- allowing the incident to fade away.
Over the years, parties, thimble bees, and other activities kept the residents busy. Field trips to Coney Island, Central Park, and Long Island allowed them to escape the indoors. The Home stopped using the word "inmates" and described the women as "family members." In 1951, the Home celebrated its centennial with a party and the production of an illustrated commemorative journal that wished for another one hundred years of service. But funding was always a challenge, and the doors of the Home closed by the early 60s.
The building remained shuttered until the 1980s when the Bull Shippers Motor Lodge took over. The lodge found itself on a list of hotels that housed homeless families through the city welfare system. These "welfare hotels" were at the center of several public controversies. Many claimed that the hotels were a hazard for the tenants, while others believed that the tenants were a hazard to the community. The Bull Shippers was particularly notorious because neighbors reported an entirely new group of "ladies" had taken up residence -- and their nightly activities did not include thimble bees or card parties.
The lodge was thankfully short-lived, closing in 1986. The building remained unused, boarded up, and covered with graffiti for over 15 years. In 2001, renovations finally began, and today a lady could peacefully live out her years in this home once again -- at a price of around $800,000.