Women Behind Bars (Doing Preservation), Part I…

It sounds like the title of a bad movie.  And clearly it was not as fun for all involved as the cheery text in the 1928 New York State Training School Annual Report makes it sound.  But check out this image:

I like the photo caption “More conservation brings an appreciation of beauty and a profession.”  And I love this photo.  Tell me what you think.  Thanks to Cherie Miller Schwartz for finding this one in the archives.  To find out what’s really going on in the photo read on.

The New York State Training School for Girls was a penal institution in Hudson, New York for young women convicted for “juvenile delinquency.”   It was the successor to the House of Refuge for Women organized by Josephine Shaw Lowell (see the People page for more info), an important progressive era reformer who set up the institution.  This was an institution dedicated to the reform of its women charges and occupational classes in interior decoration and other vocational training supplemented mandatory religious services and other activities.   In 1915, the Training School acquired the former Bronson Estate from the last private owner Elizabeth McIntyre (she died a couple of years later) and the land and house were absorbed into the prison grounds.   It took the institution about ten years to decide on a use for the house and make necessary repairs and improvements.

By 1926, the former Dr. Oliver Bronson House had been turned into a residence for the Superintendent and a Social Center for senior staff (see Parts II and III for more photos). Both the restoration of the house and the interior decoration was largely accomplished by the women prisoners.   As the Annual Report described it, “All this…has been largely the work of specially trained girls who find through this medium of meeting the need of the Institution an applied training in their course in Interior Decoration.”  Prisoner labor was extensively used during this period on both the Superintendent’s house and the rest of the institution’s buildings.   The system was clearly subject to abuse and the last Superintendent, Tom Tunney abolished it early in his tenure in the 1960s.  To learn more about the history of the institution, read Nina Bernstein’s harrowing account in The Lost Children of Wilder (New York Times content, now requires login/subscription to access).

Some of the old furniture being re-finished here was probably used to outfit the house.  Where did it come from?  My guess is that the furniture being worked on in the photo could have belonged to the McIntyre sisters and perhaps some earlier owners of the house.

Women Behind Bars (Doing Preservation), Part II

Here’s the finished product of the women prisoners’ work.  As the photo caption says “Out from the shop to its place in the home.” Shined up to within an inch of it’s life I might add. The desk on the left is interesting.  Looks like it began its life as a pianoforte (the folding lid is still evident in the photo).  Given the mighty swelling of legs it appears to date to the mid-nineteenth century (Bronson, Folger ownership possibly?)

Women Behind Bars (Doing Preservation), Part III

OK, this is last image we have from the 1928 Annual Report of the New York State Training School for Girls.  This one shows the West Verandah enclosed and converted into a Social Center.  Incidental details in photos like this are extremely helpful for our restoration.  For example, visible on the far left is on of the original niches from Davis’s 1849 design with a potted plant in it.  These were later replaced with (rather crummy) modern bookcases so we know this change is post-1928.   Also, Davis’s trellised post is still visible in the corner.

Source: 1928 NYS Training School for Girls Annual Report

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