The Denver Orphans’ Home (DOH) was organized in 1881 to help alleviate the critical problem of supporting dependent children by offering short-term shelter to the offspring of families of limited means in crisis, as well as caring for orphans and other children who needed long-term shelter. In 1902 the organization moved to a new building at the corner of Albion Street and Colfax Avenue designed by the Denver architects Willis A. Marean and Albert J. Norton. Now known as the Denver Children’s Home, the facility provides residential therapy, counseling, and other social services for children who are experiencing emotional or psychiatric problems or have been abused and neglected.
The impetus behind the establishment of the DOH was an $850 donation to aid destitute children given to the Ladies’ Relief Society in 1880 by several men, including philanthropist George Washington Clayton and Denver Jewish businessman Fred Salomon. J. H. Wyman donated a half-block of land on Race Street for the orphanage, and later, when the first cottage to house children was constructed, it was named after him. According to the Articles of Incorporation filed in January 1881, only white full orphans (who had no parents living) under the age of twelve were to be admitted to the DOH, but the home soon amended its charter to admit destitute half-orphans (who had one parent living), “thus enlarging its sphere of usefulness.”
As with most child welfare institutions of the period, the DOH was founded by members of the city’s elite, largely for the benefit of working-class children. Margaret Gray Evans, wife of Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans, served as the first president of the DOH board. Among the first subscribers in the $1,000 category were such Denver luminaries as David Moffat, Walter Cheesman, Elizabeth Iliff, and Margaret and John Evans.
During the 1880s and 1890s, well-to-do women on the DOH board took a keen interest in day-to-day affairs at the home. These women were motivated by genuine compassion, religious benevolence, and the desire to perpetuate a middle-class Protestant social order by “uplifting” and directing the lives of the working-class, sometimes immigrant children, in a quest for social justice. Most of the board members would probably have agreed with Mrs. Belden, an early DOH president who maintained that “there cannot be a nobler charity, a diviner work, than the care of destitute children.” Involvement in the orphanage may have also served to raise their own social standing in the local community.
The DOH began accepting children at the home of a Mrs. Lord, who agreed to board them for a fee at her residence on Ninth and Pine in 1882, but the fledgling “home” soon moved to other temporary quarters at Seventh and California. The success of the early fundraising campaign resulted in the first DOH building, which was erected at Sixteenth Avenue and Race Street in 1886. The number of children under the care of the DOH increased steadily, reaching 83 in 1898 and 125 in 1900.
When the building at Sixteenth Avenue and Race Street proved insufficient to house the growing number of children, a larger, permanent home was erected at 1501 Albion Street in 1902—a structure that stands to this day. Designed by the Denver architectural firm of Willis A. Marean and Albert J. Norton, the two-and-a-half-story redbrick building cost nearly $35,000. The massive Second Renaissance Revival structure provided much more space for children and had plenty of large windows to let in light.
Role in the Community
From the beginning, the DOH was more than a shelter. A primary goal of Protestant child-saving institutions was to impart middle-class values, including religious values. Although the DOH was formally “non-sectarian,” it was Protestant in all but name. Religious instruction was dispensed according to Protestant dictates, generally by Protestant ministers or teachers.
The vast majority of children in the DOH were from Protestant families, although a sprinkling of Jewish and Catholic children were recorded as well. Tuberculosis often played a role in Jewish children’s placement in the Protestant-directed DOH while their parents were patients in one of Denver’s two Jewish sanatoria: the National Jewish Hospital for Consumptives (1899) and the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society (1904).
From the beginning, many children remained at the DOH for only a short time, but after the Colorado State Home for Dependent Children opened in 1896, the DOH governing managers concentrated on assisting children in need of short-term aid so as not to duplicate efforts. The loss or illness of one parent could have a profound and often devastating effect on a working-class family in an era before social welfare pensions and allotments. In countless instances, mothers and fathers were forced to give up a child on at least a temporary basis so that they could hold down a job and contribute to the child’s board while he or she was a resident of the home.
Because they were generally forced to accept unskilled, lower-paying jobs, widows may have faced a greater challenge than men in supporting their children. Widowers, however, were not immune to the problem of combining a job with child care. Working-class men were generally unable to pay a housekeeper to care for young children and turned to the DOH as a stop-gap measure. Figures from September 1915 show that nearly half the children at the DOH were boarded with partial funding provided by parents or relatives.
Life at the Denver Orphans’ Home
The children at the DOH experienced a significant degree of regimentation and imposed conformity. In the DOH report for 1890–91, a list of “Domestic Rules” gives some indication of everyday life. Upon admission, each child was to be bathed and disinfected (if necessary), and all clothes changed. No child was allowed to come to meals until “hands, face, and hair was in proper order.” Each child above four was taught the proper care of clothing, and children were “required” to be polite and kind to each other and the employees.
Turn-of-the-century board members’ views concerning how other people’s children were to be raised may seem intrusive by modern standards, but board members were highly committed, identified closely with the children, and sought to develop the best possible program by the standards of the era. If the managers did attempt to impose middle-class values on their wards, they also tried to make the children’s stay as positive an experience as possible.
The DOH board members, led by the education committee, took great pride in the children’s school progress. In the early years, classes were conducted on the DOH grounds with private teachers. As the years passed, however, the children were generally integrated into the Denver public school system.
Child Welfare in the Progressive Era
The DOH internalized ideas made popular during the Progressive Era, such as specialization, efficiency, and the application of business principles to all areas of life. By 1925 the Denver Child Welfare Bureau, a casework agency, took over the responsibility of investigating and recommending admissions. Before then, the procedure was principally handled by volunteer members of the DOH admission and dismissal committee. The Progressive Era’s shift toward professionalization brought an expert into the picture. The professionally trained social worker gradually pushed the dedicated volunteer to the periphery. Prior to the Child Welfare Bureau’s involvement, DOH notations regarding children entering the home were brief and informal. After 1925, the DOH instituted a new, expanded file system, which included copious background information and carefully documented case files.
State legislation, such as the Mother’s Compensation Act of 1912 and the Social Security Act of the New Deal in the 1930s, affected the DOH by helping more widowed mothers care for children in their own homes, providing at least part of the cost of raising children. These stipends reflected the renewed value placed on the role of motherhood during the Progressive Era.
In the 1950s the state and city began to directly fund the DOH through their social services departments. The DOH changed its mission, and today it serves as a residence and treatment facility for emotionally distressed children. With the means to provide food, housing, treatment, and care of virtually any child in need of assistance (and if room was available), the DOH became the Denver Children’s Home in 1962. As of the early 2000s, public funding provided approximately three-quarters of the cost of running the home; private contributions accounted for the remainder.
In 1981 the Denver Children’s Home celebrated its 100th anniversary, and in 1999 the organization’s building on Albion Street was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Adapted from Jeanne Abrams, “Children Without Homes: The Plight of Denver’s Orphans, 1880–1930,” Colorado History 5 (2001).