A HOME FOR OLD LADIES and other people

by Kevin Walsh

I went to high school in Clinton Hill in the Super Seventies, but rarely ventured around the neighborhood — it was tougher than tough then. Today, 40 years later, it’s the toniest of tony enclaves, with the brownstones, Queen Annes, clapboard houses and everything else that were drug dens and hooker havens converted by gentrification back into the upper middle class and plain old upper class homes they started out being, give or take a decade or two around 1900. The merits and faults of gentrification are for other websites to tackle, but I’m intrigued when the quaintnesses of 1900 can still be seen in 2012.


When I first encountered 320 Washington Avenue in 1999, the neighborhood’s conversion from tough to tender hadn’t been fully realized yet, and the building’s windows were boarded up, the place was empty, and graffiti “decorated” the exterior.

Yet, I know it has once been considerably more genteel. A slab of concrete contained the words “Graham Home for Old Ladies, Incorporated 1851.” I envisioned a lot of tea sipping and knitting going on in there at one time.


By the time I returned in the mid-2000s, both the neighborhood conversion, and the building’s, to a condominium, had been completed, with the bricks repointed, new windows installed and a new lawn planted. A driveway left residents and visitors at the front entrance.


This place is pretty old, even by Clinton Hill standards. It was built by lawyer John B. Graham in 1851 as the Brooklyn Society for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females, a refuge for “indigent gentlewomen…unfitted to accept willingly the public asylum provided by the state.” Women 60 years of age and older were admitted who could provide “satisfactory testimonials of the propriety of her conduct and the respectability of [her] character.”


The name of the organization was abbreviated to this rather more prosaic title. The Society carried on well into the mid-20th Century, and the residents held annual craft fairs and gatherings. I am unsure when the BSFRRAIF disbanded, but by the 70s and 80s, the Graham Home for Old Ladies was home to the Bull Shippers Motor Inn, which was something of a Home for Shady Ladies. At length the hookers departed and the druggies squatted therein, and then it became the battered, boarded-up hulk it was when I first spotted it.

Neighborhoods rise and fall like the fortunes of sports teams (except the Mets and Jets, who just fall) and by 2001, the Graham Home had a new lease on life. The condo board president calls his fellow residents the Old Ladies, according to the NY Times, which doesn’t record how they feel about that.

Real estate has been in the dumps the past few years, but when a 3-bedroom here becomes available, it can go for upwards of 3/4 million. The Old Ladies would marvel.

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Old Skool November 22, 2012 - 5:43 pm

Gotta love that urban reuse. I simply do not understand people who want the city to stay stuck in a time warp. If anything New York’s strength is the way it keeps reinventing itself.

Bill Tweeddale November 23, 2012 - 5:56 pm

The Brooklyn Eagle drawing of the Graham Home depicts a woman pumping drinking water from a shallow well. Such a chore would be virtually suicidal nowadays anywhere in the city. Yet, here in upstate New York, I get my drinking water from a 25′ well, unfiltered, unchlorinated, and perfectly fit to drink!

Peter November 24, 2012 - 10:37 pm

My hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut has a still-functioning facility known as the Southmayd Home that’s very similar to what the Graham Home had been. Way back when it was strictly for older ladies of good character. Today it’s still women-only.

EHerlihy May 6, 2017 - 12:00 am

I was a student at Pratt Institute from 1977- 1982….lived one block north….I taught Art at Saint Angela Hall Academy from 1981-1982…. between my apartment and The Graham Home for Old Ladies which was still operating as the Bullshippers Motor Inn….next to a small neighborhood playground and the Clinton-Washington subway station.
Years later in the 90s I think, I was visiting friends in the neighborhood and ran into Susanne Sarandon who owned a condo on an upper floor….who knew? Robert Redford studied painting and theater arts and used to visit the neighborhood too from time to time….

Jracanelli October 9, 2017 - 1:30 pm

I was a student at Bishop Loughlin M.H.S. from 1966-1970. At that time the neighborhood was so rough you would have to be careful just to walk one block to the Clinton-Washington train station. I remember one of the teachers having his tie cut off in a mugging. I always wanted to photograph some of the Pratt Mansions and Saint Angela Hall Academy , probably the finest Catholic girls high school in the country. I remember two girls from my grammar school class attending that school. They were both of great character. In the last two years ,I have been taking photographs of some of buildings in the neighborhood and it is of great pleasure that I can now photograph some of the great buildings that I could not photograph in the 1960’s.

Lee December 11, 2020 - 8:50 am

I was looking in the 1930 Census and came across the Graham Home for Old Ladies.
It was in Brooklyn Enumeration District 24-55 if you want to read the list of names.


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