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Where to Live in New York: the Women of the Ladies Christian Union

Everyone knows how hard it is to find housing in New York.  However, locating safe housing for young women in New York City in the mid-nineteenth century was particularly difficult.

Promotional picture from the LCU, 1947 (MS 359)

In 1858, a prayer group known as the “Ladies’ Christian Association” recognized this as a common problem and decided to provide housing for young women who were “dependent upon their own exertions for support.”  Led by Mrs. Marshall O. Roberts, the group, now known as the Ladies Christian Union (LCU), bought and rented houses where women could stay when they moved into the city.  Their original home, the Amity House, was the first of its kind. Although the specific rules for each house differed, generally the homes were meant for young, unmarried, Christian women moving to the city to work or study.  The organization quickly grew and by 1958 it owned as many as six houses for women, most with waiting lists to get in.

Brochure of the Ladies Christian Union houses, ca. 1955 (MS 359)

The records of the Ladies’ Christian Union in the N-YHS library document 140 years of efforts to provide safe and affordable housing for young women.  The LCU tried to provide an alternative to the unsanitary and unsavory rooming houses of the nineteenth century and to offer Christian guidance. They worked to make their homes safe and clean and created a homelike environment for boarders with cooked meals, a library, and eventually sewing machines, and laundry. A relief fund was set up to pay for hospital beds in private hospitals for sick boarders and to help girls who could not pay their boarding fees due to illness or tragedy. The collection contains many thank you letters from these young women for the organization’s financial help during times of duress.

The materials in the archive also provide an overview of “career girls” working and studying in New York City from 1858-2001. The collection documents the changes in young women’s professions, fields of study, recreational interests, and political concerns. For instance, early occupations of boarders included teachers, seamstresses, governesses, telegraph operators, and milliners while professions in the twentieth century began to include drama students, secretaries, dancers, librarians, and eventually business and engineering students. Similarly, the patriotic eagerness of women living in the houses during World War II contrasts with accounts from the 1968 Annual Report describing the difficulty of providing housing for young women, “while they are loudly rejecting everything current, including both the domestic and foreign policies of this country.”

Women enjoying the backyard of a LCU home, 1950’s (MS 359)
Brochure of the Ladies Christian Union houses, ca. 1955 (MS 359)

Although rules regarding male suitors remained strict, the homes of the LCU did eventually become more modern and allowed for women of all religions and nationalities.  However, the last LCU homes, the Katharine House and the Roberts House, closed to the public in 2000-2001. Continuing its mission, the Ladies Christian Union is now the LCU Foundation, a private, secular foundation that awards grants for housing costs to female students in New York City preparing for careers to serve the community.

If you are an LCU alumnae, feel free to share your memories of living in housing provided by the Ladies Christian Union.

 

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Comments

  1. Holly Lawrence says

    I landed in NYC in 1982, coming from an abusive home in Georgia and arriving with one pair of shoes, and a million dollars worth of ambition. With God’s grace, I made my way to the Robert’s House where I lived safely and securely for the three year maximum residence duration. From there I moved to St. Mary’s Residence for another three years. Without these two safe havens, I fear what may have happened to me in NYC in those vulnerable young years. Thank God for LCU – Ladies Christian Union. I would gladly be available to be interviewed about my experience of living there.

    Holly J. Lawrence

    • says

      Thanks so much for sharing your story Holly! I would love to have an opportunity to talk with you about your experiences and to let you know about the current work of the Fund.

      Please contact me at your earliest convenience. Thank you!

      Sara Espinosa
      Executive Director
      LCU Fund for Women’s Education (formerly the LCU Foundation)

  2. Maria Helena A. Leitao says

    I am very happy today. I was in Christian Ladies´ House on 1974 when II was in NYC just to improve my English and try to study something about Television: how to to intervew, how to be a good director and so one. And the school was very near (News School, at 9th. St). After that year I went many times to United States: sometimes to Florida, Connecticut, Washington and New York too but I missed the address: I do not know why but I thought that the House was number 11 in 8th. Street and I never found you more and my trips to the States were only for 7 or 10 days, little time to look better. At 2013 I went for 15 days and I walk for those streets to much. Include I went to a church at 5th. Avenue and talk with the Priest asking him if he could help me to find your house…but he couldn´t and told me that in 5 years it is posible to change anything and I was looking for an address that I knew for more that 30 YEARS….
    I remember now with a happy smile my time at the House and remember that I wrote many times to the Lady that was the Chief at those years and two or 3 girls that were my “neighbor” at the floor. And always I received their answer. So I am happy now because internet and Google give me a gift today: I found your address and if I have new chance to go to States, certainly I will go until Milbank House!
    Sincerelly yours,
    maria helena

  3. says

    I moved from Rhode Island to Roberts House in 1962 when I was 20 due a difficult relationship with my father. I took a week off from my insurance job in Rhode Island, stayed at the Barbizon Hotel for Women and job hunted in New York City. On the forth day I got another insurance job, went for an interview at Roberts House and moved to New York two weeks later with much protest from my father. Room and board was $19 a week for 2 meals a day, 7 days a week. The three-story building had a lovely garden, living room, dining room, waiting area for guests plus laundry room with clothlines on the roof. I lived there for 3 years. It was great meeting women from other states, many from the South. A few women were going to acting school. Since I had dreamed of being an actress from the time I was 11, I decided to quit my job, get a waitress job and go to Stella Adler’s Acting Studio. Roberts House was managed by two sweet older women. When they saw that my plan wasn’t working they offered me the 3 to 11 shift at the front desk. I answered the
    phone, admitted guests at the locked front door and made rounds with a key for the check-in boxes on the upper floors. They paid me $190 a month plus room and board. Now I wonder if my pay was from the scholarship you mentioned.
    Roberts House was a wonderful place to live for a young woman seeing New York for the first time.

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