From 1973 to 1989, this historic building was considered a community eyesore; boarded up and surrounded by chain link fences. Much of the original slate roof had been damaged by a fire set during the 1977 New York City blackout. Through the joint efforts of local historians, neighborhood activists and Columbia University students, the building was given landmark status in 1983 and is now the largest hostel in North America. With 670 beds, the American Youth Hostels building hosts visitors from all over the world offering dorm style rooms with modern amenities that include a large outdoor patio and green space, a game room, a café, an internet and television lounge and a large communal kitchen.
But what is most intriguing about this building is only briefly described on the plaque that sits at the main entrance. 891 Amsterdam Avenue, located on the corner of 103rd Street was once known as The Association Residence for Respectable Aged Indigent Females, a place for elderly woman to help them “avoid the degradation of the poorhouse”. It was constructed in 1881-83 by “The Association”, one of New York City’s most charitable organizations. The residence was open to “any respectable non-Roman Catholic gentlewoman over sixty years of age, on payment of $150 and the surrender of any property she possessed”. A subsequent gift of $250,000 funded an addition in 1908, extending the building to 104th street and included the installation of a gorgeous Tiffany window to the chapel, which is now housed in a museum in Winter Park Florida.
The design of the building is described as “a French-inspired style which recalls the Victorian Gothic” and was created by Richard Morris Hunt, one of the most sought after architects of the 19th century. Hunt, the first American Architect to attend the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, is now best known as the architect of the lavish summer residences for the Vanderbilt family; the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina and The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island. He designed over 75 structures in New York City alone, including many large mansions for the wealthiest citizens of the gilded era. Of those, only 20 of his works in this city still stand. Amongst them, the base of the Statue of Liberty and the front façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We are fortunate that strong community involvement resulted in the preservation of this important landmark, which has also brought new life to the neighborhood.
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