Skip to main content

How A Settlement House Functions

An Insider’s View of How a Settlement House Serves Its Neighborhood

Comments by Ruth Tefferteller, Program Director, Henry Street Settlement House, New York City

Note: This undated document was obtained from the files of the Henry Street Settlement House located in the  Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. The exact date is unknown; however, the reference to Mobilization of Youth indicates it was written in the 1960s.

To try to tell the complete story of what originates at Pete’s House and the Guttman building, affectionately known for over  60 years as “301”,  is to tell the story of the Settlement itself.   To me, “301” is the heart and soul of Henry Street and where, if you had nothing else, the Settlement message would be conveyed and practiced.

Henry Street’s uniqueness lies in the fact that it has grown and  matured to the extent of specializing in certain areas beyond the multiplicity of services which lie at its heart.   For example, out of concern for excellence and in response to human need,  we now have a few special departments which evolved from smaller efforts first tried within the center of the Settlement at 265 and 301.   From teaching music at 10 cents a lesson at “301” we now have a Music School.   In the early days Mrs. Rita Morgenthau and the Lewisohn sisters carried on at “301” with dramatic clubs and street festivals until, in time, a whole department in theatre arts developed within a separate structure, called the Playhouse.   And the Mental Hygiene Clinic began with one psychiatric social worker located in a little office off the lobby of Pete’s House,  to reach the emotionally troubled child in more intensive ways.   The drive for  serving people in more comprehensive and qualitative ways has run like a golden thread throughout the years,  as moral commitments to a neighborhood translated themselves into refining and extending our programs to upgrade more and more individual children, youth and adults.

Historically, the need for doing this was first felt at “301”.  In defining “301”, as in defining a Settlement House, I sometimes find myself saying, first:  We are not a school and yet we do a great deal of teaching.  Secondly, we are not a conventional community recreation center though, in fact, we offer a host of play and recreational activities when we deal with neighbors in their leisure hours.   Thirdly, we are not strictly a social welfare center though, indeed, the core of everything we do originates from a concern for health and welfare.  In that connection, we utilize all of the techniques of social work and view our total work as a social service.

In particular, with regard to social work and social service – – a field which is specialized and fragmented in many instances – – our general approach cuts across all aspects of social work to include child welfare, family service, individual counseling and therapy, and rehabilitation in many forms.   Settlement social service works steadily with all branches of public welfare, schools, courts, hospitals, housing authorities, police and assorted correctional institutions.   It practices group work, case work and community organization in varying dosages.   In other words, Settlement social work “hits on all cylinders” at once and is uniquely embedded in an educational and recreational milieu so that these three major disciplines operate simultaneously.

Therefore any attempt to understand what goes on at Pete’s House and the Guttman Building must, in all fairness, take into account this concern for people, which reaches so far beyond the classes, the clubs and the activities.   Charts, schedules, diagrams and statistics do give a panoramic profile of the subjects and experiences which we hold to be beneficial to the members we serve.   Whom we serve and how many can be interpreted from such data, along with the program content.   But how well can these show the interrelatedness of it all and the integration of such a swathe of recreational, educational and social services in behalf of children, teenagers and families?   Name the institution where an art teacher, a camp director, a youth division supervisor, a family social worker and even an early childhood educator can come together at a moment’s notice to discuss the best ways of helping a particular youngster!   This is the side of “301” that is hardest to explain, since so much of this goes on spontaneously,  informally and continually.

In this period of rapid change and adaptation within the fields of education and social work one of the more interesting motifs that runs through the recommendations is the urgency for applying interdisciplinary, flexible and integrated approaches to meet the needs of children and youth. Good follow-up and follow-through is another recurring refrain.   Also, all kinds of new alignments are beginning to take place: the teachers talk more freely to the social workers and even do some home visiting themselves! The job counselor looks for educational deficiencies and shows concern for a school-dropout’s family background, even as he investigates new learning opportunities for him.  Mobilization for Youth, for example,  in the course of training a youth for a job, discovers his interest in art and calls Henry Street to enroll him in our teen painting class.  The point is, that within a viable and functioning Settlement House the marriage of many disciplines is rather an old story.   At “301” the team approach is our daily modus operandi as we wrestle with the day to day problems of individuals and the neighborhood as a whole.

This is not to imply that all is being done as well as it should or could be.   There is a vast potential for utilizing “301” operations for far greater services to individuals and families than we are now capable of rendering.   With all that is being reported by the Self-Study Committee, there must be recognition of certain shortages which lie mainly in the area of social work with children and youth.   There is a constant pressure for more individualizing and not enough hands to do this.   Just as we view our leisure-time programs as stepping stones to more learning and social development, so also, do we view the latter as leading to closer and heavier involvement with children and their parents.  We must continuously realize that the Settlement is a large receiving center, where young people come because they love it and want it.  They, in fact, are voluntarily seeking us,  and the potential, as already indicated, for reaching and teaching is truly enormous.

The hue and cry to change our institutions, –  to “shake-up the establishment” – is,  after all, directed at those who long since have failed to respond creatively and flexibly to individual human need and indeed,  such institutions need altering.   If we at “301” want to be more ambitious, it is precisely because we believe we must never become routinized or so sure that our way is right.   Therein, of course, lies the key to good neighborhood work and the eternal excitement and discovery of working with our constituency at “301”.

Source: University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

View graphic versionView graphic version