Center Built for Italian Immigrants Continues Legacy of Social Service

By Carmen Fiore

The Star-Ledger
September 27, 1990


On any given day in Princeton, drivers speed past an Italianate two-story masonry structure at the intersection of quiet John Street and Paul Robeson Place without a sideways glance. But native Princetonians know it as Dorothea's House, a community center established for Italian immigrants more than 75 years ago. The house was built as a memorial to social worker Dorothea van Dyke McLane, who had worked among impoverished Italian immigrants in Princeton. After she died in childbirth in 1912, her father and husband provided the land and the money to construct the building and a trust fund to support it. The building was dedicated Oct. 7, 1914, with 300 people in attendance.

Today, Italian-Americans living in Princeton and the surrounding Mercer County area still use the facilities. So do several social service agencies. Most of the Italian-Americans who come there are either members of an association known as Dorothea's House or the Central Jersey Chapter of the American Italian Historical Association (AIHA), or both. The Dorothea's House association has more than 200 members; the AIHA chapter has more than 50. Each group gathers regularly for business meetings and to view films or art exhibits or savor regional Italian cuisine.

''We get a nice turnout for our programs,'' said Joe Nini, president of the board of trustees of Dorothea's House. ''When we had gnocchi night, the members brought in their own dishes of gnocchi for everybody to sample. Another Sunday night, we had a specially prepared fish soup. It was delicious.'' One evening, the association got together for a slide presentation of the Umbria region in central Italy. Board member Alexandra Mazzucato remarked, ''Italy is so beautiful - the hills, the mountains. And the walled cities have so much history in them. How can you not want to visit there?''

The AIHA chapter's executive board meets at Dorothea's House monthly and holds a number of programs there. To open its 1990-91 calendar year, the general membership recently gathered for a breakfast meeting and lecture. The speaker was Herbert L. Zussman who spoke about conductor Arturo Toscanini. Before the AIHA's summer hiatus, a capacity crowd listened to a lecture about the history of Ellis Island by Howard Green of the New Jersey Historical Commission. The month before, the chapter heard a lecture on genealogy entitled ''Tracing Your Roots.'' Chapter members also enjoy exchanging humorous Italian stories and singing Italian songs. The chapter's program committee plans each year's programs in advance. In addition to hearing outside speakers, members give regional Italian poetry readings or slide presentations or bring in things of interest, such as authentic Italian ceramics or embroidery.

A program in the works for the fall is a tour of the restored immigration center on Ellis Island. In addition to social programs, said chapter President Connie Maglione, the chapter sponsors members who are undertaking literary projects. Funding comes from a bequest to the chapter by the late Trenton-area author and educator Joe LoBue. ''Our first grant of $300 went to help defray costs of developing and preparing an Italian-American historical map of Mercer County,'' she said. ''And there's more in the planning stage on the history of the religious (festivals) in Trenton.''

The first floor of Dorothea's House is divided among meeting rooms of various sizes, a kitchen, lavatories and the offices for Youth Communications. The second floor is home to the Princeton Area Family Service and the Youth Employment Service. The Princeton Homemakers have offices in the basement. Other organizations that use Dorothea's House are the Boat and Beagle Club, the Princeton Soccer Club and two mutual aid societies: Roma Eterna and its ladies' auxiliary, and the Lega Marconi Lodge, Sons of Italy. Family Service administrator Mimi Ballard said, ''Through our resident psychiatrist and social workers, we help individuals as well as families in the Princeton area in a number of ways. ''We're a nonprofit United Way-supported agency. We help those in need of counseling for substance abuse or to improve individual and family relationships. We help employees with job-related problems, and we even provide social day care for the elderly, regardless of ability to pay.'' Anne Thomas of the Youth Employment Service said, ''We find jobs for young people in the Princeton area. We even place them in positions to help senior citizens who need our services. People who need help contact us, and we take it from there in finding the right young person for them.''

Youth Communications is headed by Frank Clark, who doubles as property manager for the Dorothea's House board of trustees. ''We broadcast weekly on WPST-Princeton,'' Clark said. ''Our panel of youngsters from 20 different high schools in New Jersey asks questions of a different guest each week. Previous guests have been Rep. James Florio, who is now our governor, and Sen. Bill Bradley. And we've been broadcasting for 27 years.'' Princeton Homemakers has facilities to train practical nurses in providing home care to the needy. ''Our people get 65 hours of training - 50 here and 15 in the field under our supervising nurses,'' said Catherine Phillips, executive director. ''We serve the Princeton area, and we get referrals and walk-ins. We care for the aged, the ill, and we have a day care program for patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease.''

On the first floor are large photo portraits of Dorothea and her husband, Guy Richards McLane, who had been a New York stockbroker, and a bronze bust of her father, Henry van Dyke, who had been a Princeton University professor and an ambassador to the Netherlands. Dorothea's House, according to Clark, is in excellent condition. ''It's stood up to (almost) 76 years of constant use,'' he said. ''And it's ready to provide another 76 years of service.''