Check out the Mary Fisher Home, Greenpoint’s 19th Century Artists’ Colony
Greenpoint’s industrial past is well known, and its emerging identity as an artist’s hub might seem like a 21st century phenomenon, but back in 1888, Greenpoint was sporting its very own artists’ colony. That year, Mary Fisher, of 71 Java Street, opened her home as the Home Hotel Association, a residence for elderly “Brain Workers.” According to the plaque marking the historic site, Fisher defined “Brain Workers” as men and women “who had labored in literature or art or any other brain profession.” The Home operated on Java Street until 1912, when it moved to two separate locations: one in Mount Vernon, NY, and another in Tenafly, New Jersey.
Mary Fisher was an Englishwoman inspired by the old age pensions which support the elderly in the UK. Social Security wasn’t established in the United States until 1935, so there was no public safety net for older people who had retired, or were out of work. In The Story of the Mary Fisher Home, published 1915, Fisher wrote, “I remembered that in Europe, pensions were often accorded to those who, during their lifetimes, had been of some benefit to the nation, and it seemed to me that in this country the people must do what the government failed to do, and I hoped that in time we might have a national fund for this purpose.”
Fisher appealed to notable New Yorkers for their in kind or financial support, and was well received by Fredrick Barnard, then the President of Columbia University. He introduced her to a variety of prominent and charitable New Yorkers, including Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, but not everybody believed that “brain workers” deserved philanthropic support. In fact, upon hearing the appeal, one woman said, “A home for old authors and artists! My! What a company of cranks! What will you do with them?”
Undeterred, Fisher readied her home on Java Street for aging literati, and quite a company did arrive at her door. She writes of the aged actress who made leather doll’s shoes at 15 cents a pair, and of an elderly journalist who “had lost his grip on the New York Times, where he had been employed for many years.”
But not all of Fishers tenants were older people. There was also the Byronic young poet, dying of consumption, with his book of unpublished verses by his bedside. Fisher wrote that when he died his aunt asked, “‘Why do such poor fellows persist in writing books, when they can’t make a living? He had better be a carpenter or a plumber, and leave the rich men to write books. He couldn’t sell his poems. What was the use of writing them?'” To which the minister replied, “But it would hardly do for us to depend only on our rich men for our literature.”
Mary Fisher saw merit in art and artists even when other didn’t, and made Greenpoint richer in spirit for it.