Alfred Tredway White was arguably Brooklyn’s most significant and influential philanthropist and social reformer of the late 19th century and early 20th. His lifelong work on behalf of the city’s poor population stemmed from a conviction that success, health, community, and the built environment were fundamentally interrelated, and that investing in the living conditions of the working poor could be both transformative and profitable.
“I don‘t know any other one in all that six million of New York City who would leave such a void as he does. If there ever was a just man made perfect he was… His poise, his quiet effectiveness, his self-suppression, his sweetness, his fellowship, his grasp of things, his sense of justice all made association with him inspiring…” — William Howard Taft
“Mr. White never has any trouble with his tenants, though he gathers in the poorest; nor do his tenements have anything of the ‘institution character’ that occasionally attaches to ventures of this sort, to their damage. They are like a big village of contented people, who live in peace with one another because they have elbowroom even under one big roof.” — Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives
Alfred Tredway White was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1846 to Elizabeth Tredway and Alexander White, a wealthy importer. In addition to working in his family’s firm, White was deeply involved in Brooklyn’s First Unitarian Church. When White’s minister asked him to superintend the church’s new settlement school in 1869, it sparked his lifelong involvement in the education and betterment of the city’s working poor.
Not only was White (and his wife and two children) an active teacher in the school, but he became close to the families of its students, and quickly realized on his house calls what deplorable living conditions they suffered from. After studying housing reform projects in England, White used his own family’s capital to apply the lessons he had learned towards the development of affordable homes in Brooklyn for over a thousand families. His buildings — the Home Buildings in 1877, Warren Place in 1878, the Tower buildings in 1879, and the nine Riverside Buildings in 1890 — set a new standard for the quality of tenement housing with their attention to architectural beauty, open space, sunlight, ventilation, fire-safety, and separate rooms. Through the example of his buildings and his own advocacy, White proved that investment in housing for the poor could be both profitable and societally beneficial, paving the way for some of the country’s first housing reform laws.
White was also a strong advocate for higher education and poor children. He is considered to have cut Brooklyn‘s infant mortality rate in half: in 1876 he built the Sea-Side Home on Coney Island to provide medical care to poor children, and founded the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. His generous contributions to the Hampton and Tuskeegee Institutes helped sustain those two schools, and his endowment of a chair at Harvard made possible a new course in social ethics. That course’s combination of economics with ethical philosophy was an unprecedented and celebrated model that sparked imitations at other colleges and earned White an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 1890.
White died in 1921 in a skating accident. His legacy lives on not only in his buildings, most of which are still standing and are cherished historical landmarks selling for millions of dollars, but in his profound contributions to housing reform, education, and a model of social philanthropy that continues to be relevant today.
A Holistic View of Housing
From his work with the settlement school, White was a deep believer in the connection between the quality of people’s housing and their health and prosperity. He believed that the crowded single-room model of the typical tenement housing was particularly detrimental, and all of the thousand homes he developed provided their residents with access to bathrooms, storage, ventilation, and open space — none of his buildings occupied more than 52 percent of its lot.
Places to Gather
An early pioneer of placemaking, White prioritized the creation of places for people to gather, both in his individual housing developments and in the larger neighborhood. His nine Riverside buildings had their own park, playground, bathhouse and music pavilion. At Warren Place, common points of entry encourage meetings between neighbors, and inner gardens, a fountain and a fishpond serve as focal points that give people reasons to congregate. And in the later years of his life, White’s creation and financial support of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden brought free access to green space, gardens, and community to the neighborhood’s poor.
The Power of 5%
Alfred T. White’s motto was “philanthropy plus 5%,” referring to the return that he aimed to realize for himself and his fellow investors on the housing developments they built. Although lower than the profits attainable by speculators who could make up to 40% a year from poorly constructed tenements, White’s model was the first in the country to prove that housing could be simultaneously high quality, affordable to its poor tenants, and a profitable investment.
“I hold that not 10% of the people now living in tenements would refuse to avail themselves of the best improved conditions offered, and come fully up to the use of them, properly instructed; but they cannot get them. They are up to them now, fully, if the chances were only offered. They don’t have to come up. It is all a gigantic mistake on the part of the public, of which these poor people are the victims.”
“How are these men and women to understand the love of God you speak of, when they see only the greed of men?”
“Well it is to build hospitals for the cure of disease, but better to build homes which will prevent it.”
“[No] subject touches more closely the interests of all classes of society than the conditions of life among the laboring classes in great cities. The badly constructed, unventilated, dark and foul tenement houses of New York, in which our laboring classes are forced to live, are the nurseries of the epidemics which spread with certain destructiveness into the fairest homes; they are the hiding-places of the local banditti; they are the cradles of the insane who fill the asylums and of the paupers who throng the almshouses; in fact they produce these noxious and unhappy elements of society as surely as the harvest follows the sowing, and by these, punish the carelessness of those who own no responsibility as keepers of their brethren.”
Lathrop, John Howland. “The Great Heart and Master Mind of Brooklyn’s Better Self: The Inspiration of the Life of Alfred T. White,” Christian Register, February 17, 1921: 157.
Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Scribner’s, 1890; rpt. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1971.
Walker, Wendy, ed. The Social Vision of Alfred T. White. New York: Proteus Gowanus, 2009.
White, Alfred T. Improved Dwellings for the Working Classes. New York: Putnam‘s, 1879.
White, Alfred T. Sun-Lighted Tenements: Thirty-Five Years’ Experience as an Owner, Publication No. 12, National Housing Association, March 1912.