Constructing the Social in New York City and London: The Architecture of the Welfare State, 1920-1950


Jessica Fletcher


Art History

Project Title:

Constructing the Social in New York City and London: The Architecture of the Welfare State, 1920-1950

Jessica Fletcher specializes in the architecture of the welfare state, focusing particularly on how the needs of working-class women were formulated and responded to spatially. She is currently researching how voluntary organizations and the state built housing and health centers for working-class mothers in New York City and London in the interwar period. Since moving to New York, Jessica has also worked at the curatorial departments of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, as well as Artists Space. She holds a B.A. from University College London and an M.A. from Columbia University.


Historically disenfranchised communities, particularly women and colonial subjects, shaped the built environment in New York City and London between 1930 and 1950. My dissertation addresses one of their contributions, the architecture of the welfare state, showing that they took charge of “constructing the social” in public housing and public health centers, and advocated for innovative social architecture and expanded social services. Urban activists, such as Catherine Lansing and Hazel Mackay in New York, and Chuni Lai Katial in London, envisaged housing and health centers as intrinsically linked and created networks of new and existing buildings in cities that provided working-class residents with an expansive array of social services. They were particularly concerned with providing health centers for mothers and children and combined strategies of adaptive reuse with purpose-built structures to create modern landscapes of health.

The 1936 report of mothers’ health compiled by a Henry Street Settlement doctor is a neat grid that near-exhaustively catalogs the physical conditions of working-class women who made use of the health services offered by the settlement house. But, between comments on the health of their feet, ears, throat, and genitals, and neat check marks to indicate the presence of athlete’s foot, a couple of scrawled phrases extended over multiple columns, reading “(nervous breakdown 3 years ago)” and “(emotionally disturbed).”

I read these reports in the University of Minnesota’s Social Welfare History reading room; I was there to research the activities of the Henry Street settlement house – an organization established to provide social services to the working-class population that was based in the Lower East Side. My research focuses on ordinary buildings and the ways in which activists have responded spatially to the needs of working-class women in London and New York City in the interwar period by constructing housing and health centers. The Henry Street settlement offered extensive free and subsidized health care in a network of buildings that they adapted to medical purposes and in the homes of working-class women themselves through home visits undertaken by the Visiting Nurse Service. During my research in Minnesota and Cambridge, I found hand drawn plans that showed how the settlement health workers arranged rooms in row houses to serve as clinics for women and children; I found that an African American nurse established a branch of Henry Street between Hell’s Kitchen and the Upper West Side to serve the then-predominantly African American area; I found photographs and plans for a racially integrated summer camp that included space for children and mothers to take vacations in upstate New York in the 1920s and ‘30s; and I found documentation of the extensive collaboration with the New York City Housing Authority in the Vladeck Houses projects. These sites and services will all form the basis of the New York section of my dissertation, and the Connect New York fellowship has greatly enriched my understanding of the modern landscapes of health that settlement workers built for working-class women. My research this summer also brought to the fore the limits of historical constructions of health and the difficulty of understanding how working-class women experienced the spaces that were made for them

About the author: Param Ajmera