Thursday, November 10, 2011

Katharine House

The Katharine House, one of the last of New York's residences for young women, opened at 118 West 13th Street in 1910 and closed in 2000. It was turned into a dorm for the New School. For nearly a century, it was a haven for young women with little money trying to get a foot in the door of New York City.

Said one resident to the Times in 1997, ''It's like a movie, like the old black-and-white movies I would sit down and watch with my grandmother." Said another to the Times in 2000, ''This place isn't even in the 20th century."

Aside from those two New York Times articles, info on Katharine House is scarce. I found one piece of its ephemera on ebay, a 1940 memo from superintendent Mrs. D.B. Creede that spells out the rules and regulations for this "permanent residence for young Protestant, business women" who could get a room and two meals a day for $17.00.

"Make your bed neatly," wrote Mrs. Creede. "Put away shoes, clothing, underwear." As for typewriters, they "may be used in ping pong room any time and in dining room except at meal hours. Positively no typing in bedrooms." There was also something called a Dime Fund--by putting in a dime a week, a fund was created for the specific purchase and repair of "electric irons, sewing machines, and radios," and for magazine subscriptions.

Times have changed a bit since then.

New School: dorm room with bikini poster

One of the young women who found a temporary home at Katharine House was JVNY reader Karen Gehres (artist and director of Begging Naked), who was kind enough to pass along her recollections. She lived there in 1985 while a sophomore at Parsons School of Design. She recalls:

"When you walked in the place there was one of the unfriendly looking women that ran the joint. At night there was a night watchman to turn us away if we were late for curfew. If you got past the front you walked into some very unused waiting room with formal uncomfortable furniture, very retirement home feel mixed with a good dose of nunnery. There was a cafeteria that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The room I had was jail-cell narrow. There was a bed, I think a dresser, and a wee little sink in the corner by the door. It was not pleasant to share a bathroom with a bunch of chicks."

Karen and her mom in Union Square, during her Katharine House days

She explains, "What I remember very clearly is the place was crawling with bulimic/anorexic ballerinas from The Joffrey Ballet. It was a regular yack fest every day. They'd get maybe an apple for breakfast. I was out the door as early as I could most days and stay out as long as I could. The place got to be kinda depressing. I did make a few buddies though. One of these girls had a window that looked out onto 13th. Directly across the street was the Salvation Army. They rented rooms to girls too, but you had to share a room with at least one other girl. There were more medical students that lived there for some reason. We had the ballerinas.

One morning, I got up and they wouldn't let me leave right away. They said a girl had jumped out her window across the street at the Salvation Army place and that her body fell onto the pointed spikes of the iron fence surrounding the building. I went up to my friend's room and looked out her window and there was the poor girl still on the fence with a white sheet that someone had put over her body. It made me shudder and feel very ill. This girl was our age."

Amazingly, the Salvation Army building is still a residence for women today. The fence around it is a lot less lethal.


Ken Mac said...

an empty building for rent in Union Square? too much. Love her Blondie shades too. Okay, I need to read the story.

Carol Gardens said...

There was a stodgy ladies residence on Gramercy Park South for many decades as well (west corner of Irving Place). I looked into living there when *I* was going to art school. I recall that no males were allowed above the first floor.

I'm sure that volumes could be written about the old Barbizon Hotel (now condos, I believe).

Marty Wombacher said...

Nice slice of life post from the past. And a great photo of Karen and her mom in Union Square!

randall said...

I think that's my dad driving that tan station wagon. We used to have one just like it w/ vinyl seats that would get nuclear hot in the summer.

Jeremiah Moss said...

do you recognize that building for rent and what's there today?

JakeGould said...

That corner she’s standing on--and out of view in this shot--is where the bar “Coffee Shop” is now, and the building that is “for rent” with the columns is now the “Blue Water Grill.” The “McDonald’s” down the block is still there. Link to the Google Maps view that is about where the picture was shot over here:

Karen Gehres said...

Right you are Jake. And "Coffee Shop" was once a real coffee shop.Lots of Union meeting use to spill out onto the street there. I remember walking home at night and I saw some large animals scurrying under the cars in the parking lot that was there. At first I thought "Wow,look at the size of those cats". Upon closer inspection I saw the dead give-away...the tail. Oh yes,RATS the size of cats.

Anonymous said...

I lived at Katharine House in 1995. I came to live in New York from South Africa and we were told that Katharine House was a safe place for a young lady.
It wasn't the most welcoming entrance, but there was a large library / lounge room on the 2nd floor that was probably decorated with the original furniture! We were allowed to entertain guests there. In your picture it was the room leading out to that patio area.
My room was also fairly small - it faced out onto 13th - for the first week or so I did find the neighbours in the building across the road utterly fascinating - it seemed to be just guys (with boyfriends) and no curtains!! Scarred my conservative little eyes for life! :-)
I would meet friends at a restaurant on Union Square fairly often! Such fond memories!

Anonymous said...

I stayed at the Katharine House for the summer while studying at the Joffrey Ballet School. And no, I was not bulimic. I was 15 years old and spent 8 weeks essentially on my own. What a transformative experience! Not sure why it just popped In to my head, but I was curious if it was still there.

Anonymous said...

I lived at the Katherine House while I worked at Women's Wear Daily for six months in 1969. It had a curfew of 11 PM at which time the doors were closed and you could not come in till the next morning. At the time one had to state that you were Protestant to live there. The administrator was Catholic and we all considered it a joke.

Anonymous said...

I lived at the Katharine House in 1958 & 1959 when I worked at the Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. & later at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). I then moved across the street to the Evangeline Residence run by the Salvation Army. While at the Katharine House, we had a curfew of midnight, I think, but if we came in later, we rang the bell (door was locked), and the night elevator man let us sign in 5 minutes after the last person signed in. My room overlooked 13th St. I rearranged the furniture so the bed was crosswise in front of the window, painted the furniture black, hung curtains & put a slipcover on the chair and matching spread on the bed. They used my room as a "model room" to show prospective new residents. I loved the location & still get homesick for the Village, though it was many years ago that I lived there. Your blog on the Katharine House brought back good memories.

Unknown said...

I lived here when it closed - such a great time in my life. A New York experience that was unique and "vintage".

Anonymous said...

Wow, I looked this up because I would always hear my Mother say that when she first met my Father she was living @ The Katherine House and worked @ The Irving Trust Bank.circa 1959-61

Cindy B. said...

Wow! What a great post/ article. My sister lived at Katherine House in 1975-76 (I believe that's about right). She came to NY from Kansas City, MO. She came to NY to study at NYU. She also worked at the UN for a time. She was 10 years older than I and she used to write me letters every week. I always wondered about the place where she lived. Too bad it's just a memory now.

Anonymous said...

I lived in the Katherine House after college in 1987. I was an assistant buyer for Macy's. My room was cell like but I loved living there!! NYC was incredible at 23 years old- met my husband in the city and he picked me up for our very first date at the Katherine House...a grumpy woman ran the front desk. No boys allowed in rooms, only the "Beau Parlor". I'm sad that the opportunity to live inexpensively before you "make your way" is not available to young girls anymore. I lived at the Katherine House and then moved to an apartment in Chelsea with girls that I met there- wonderful memories. Josephine was the cleaning lady there, she was from Ireland. A sweet woman-

Anonymous said...

I lived at Katherine House in the early 90s. We were definitely not permitted to have any visitors past the little 'beaux rooms' on the first floor. While the young women there at the time were wonderful, I couldn't stand the institutional yellow walls in the tiny bedrooms (very Gillman's The Yellow Wallpaper depressing) or the extremely low shower heads. I'm 5'10, so I'd have to bend down to fit under them as they were made when women were considerably shorter. Also, the kitchen ladies were very grumpy. The woman who worked at the concierge little room right of the front door upon entering was wonderful; I can't remember her name. I'm a native New Yorker and went from living with roommates on Bleecker St for several years to living at KH. The place was definitley better suited for newbees to the city as I felt like I was moving backwards living there. Best part though aside from meeting people from interesting places was the location and the price! I agree that it's a shame that it's no longer in operation; many young women fresh out of college lived there at the time and it was ideal for young women beginning their careers.


I lived there from October 1978 to May or June of 1980. I came from the South from a very conservative Christian background. I loved it there and quickly moved into one of the double sized rooms on the 5th floor at the front of the building.

It was easy to get to Wall Street where I worked; really it was easy to get anywhere in Manhattan from there.

Koch was Mayor then and he was hilarious.

I would strike out on "wander walks" all over Manhattan. I loved the bagel shop on the east side of 6th Ave. just north of 9th street.

On weekends I would cross to 5th Avenue and walk to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sheer exhilaration -- I was in heaven. I was grateful for the economical way to live and thus was free to relish all that Manhattan had to offer!

Who cared about the little things? I got to live in Greenwich Village, which was a magical and fascinating place.

Living in Katharine House freed up money for the ballet, the symphony, and the opera!

Thank you Katharine House and the Women's Christian Temperance Union for running it.

TO YOU CHURLISH previous residents: what spoiled, sour, and joyless people you must be.

Dr. Scott A. Doherty said...

I was a young handsome sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard stationed at Governor's Island for almost a year from 1983-84. I use to date a pretty young Lady, Lisa Rudy, who was a Fashion Design student at Tobe-Coburn School. I recall coming into the parlor of the "Kat House" as the ladies referred to it. The parlor was drab and there was no way in hell any man ever snuck in that place. This all just flashed in my head so I apologize for downloading. Thanks for the great article and comments posted. Certainly, the end of an era.

Virginia DeMarce said...

My mother lived there in the 1930s, after her parents died. She was a native of Manhattan. She met another resident, my Aunt Mary, who had come from Missouri to make a career in New York. Aunt Mary took Mother home on a vacation, which is how she met Daddy.