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The History of Dorothea's House

Dorothea’s House was established on February 6, 1913, as a memorial to Dorothea van Dyke McLane (pictured to the right with Guy Richard McLane on their wedding day) a volunteer social worker who ministered to the needs of Princeton’s newly arrived Italian immigrants in the early 1900s.

After Dorothea’s untimely death at the age of 23 during childbirth, on February 24, 1912, her father, Dr. Henry van Dyke, a Princeton University professor, poet, and diplomat, and her husband Guy Richard McLane, a New York City stockbroker, formed and incorporated the Dorothea van Dyke McLane Association to serve Princeton’s growing Italian community.

The Association’s charter cites its purpose:”…to originate, foster, develop, promote, carry on, and engage in charitable and benevolent work for the welfare of the inhabitants of Princeton, NJ, primarily those of the Italian race…” The original trustees of the Association were Guy Richard McLane, Dr. Henry van Dyke, Henry I. Parsons, Bayard Stockton, and Tertius van Dyke, Dorothea’s brother. Shortly after its incorporation, Guy Richard McLane contracted for an attractive, two-story Italianate building to constructed on land donated by Dr. Henry van Dyke, located to the rear of his Bayard Lane home, “Avalon.” This became “Dorothea’s House,” the home of the Association which was officially opened on October 7, 1914. An endowment was also established at that time to finance the programs and maintenance of Dorothea’s House.

The House provided a base for Princeton’s early Italian immigrants, offering not only social and educational opportunities, but help with housing and employment. Beginning in the ’30s and to this day, Dorothea’s House extended its services to the community by providing space to local non-profit organizations. In October 1963, the Board of Trustees of the Association formally established an annual scholarship program which has awarded more than 400 scholarships to local high school graduates. In addition, in 1969, the Board established an annual Dorothea van Dyke McLane award to be presented to a Princeton High School student for proficiency in the study of the Italian language. A similar award is also given to a Princeton University freshman each year.

Since 1986, monthly programs that provide the community with opportunities to experience many aspects of Italian culture have been offered free of charge to the public at Dorothea’s House. They onclude music performances, art exhibitions, author talks, slide presentations featuring art, architecture, and landscape of Italy, gastronomy talks, and wine tastings, all followed by a reception where people of diverse backgrounds meet and share their common interest in Italian culture.

In the early years of Dorothea’s House, English classes were offered to the newly arrived Italians. In 1991, that tradition came full circle when an Italian language class for children was initiated. Since then, interest has grown to include several weekly classes at different levels for adults and children during the academic year.

Similar Italian culture centers exist in metropolitan areas across the United States, but Dorothea’s House is a rare example of an ethnic settlement house established in the last century that still thrives and serves the public today. Although originally built as a community center for Princeton’s Italian immigrants, Dorothea’s House has flourished since then in its expanded role of providing valuable programs to countless members of the community, regardless of their background.

Prepared by Robert B. Immordino

On February 6, 1913, Guy Richards McLane, a New York City stockbroker, and Dr. Henry van Dyke, a Princeton University professor, poet, and diplomat, formed and incorporated the Dorothea van Dyke McLane Association. They created the non-profit association to establish a living memorial to Dorothea van Dyke McLane, wife of Mr. McLane and daughter of Dr. van Dyke. A year earlier (Feb. 24, 1912), Dorothea and her infant daughter died during childbirth. They are buried in the van Dyke family plot of the historic Princeton Cemetery.

Dorothea’s love and concern for the well-being of Princeton’s newly arrived poor Italian immigrant families, among whom she worked as a volunteer social worker, had long commanded the attention of her family.

The Association’s incorporation papers cite the purposes of the association “…to originate, foster, develop, promote, carry on and engage in charitable and benevolent work for the welfare of the inhabitants of Princeton, Mercer County, New Jersey, primarily those of the Italian race, and to receive and hold real estate and personal property to be used and employed in the purposes aforesaid.”

The intial Trustees of the Association were Guy Richards McLane, Dr. Henry van Dyke, Henry I. Parsons, Bayard Stockton, and Tertius van Dyke, Dorothea’s brother.

On the day of its incorporation, Dr. Henry van Dyke deeded a plot of land located at the rear of his Bayard Lane home “Avalon” to the Dorothea van Dyke McLane Association. Shortly thereafter, Guy Richards McLane had a two-story Italianate stucture built on the property in honor of his late wife, which would come to be known as “Dorothea’s House.”

Dorothea’s House was officially opened on the evening of Wednesday, October 7, 1914 “with brief ceremonies and entertainment for the Italian people of Princeton,” according to the Princeton Press. of Oct. 10, 1914. The article also stated that “over 300 Italians were present who showed by their enthusiasm their appreciation of the effort to give them a place where they can meet for instruction, recreation, and entertainment.” Miss Elinor Kennedy Purves was employed full-time to initiate and carry on a wide-ranging set of educational, recreational, and social programs for Princeton’s Italian community. She was assisted by Princeton Univeristy students and other local volunteers. At the time, Princeton’s Italian immigrant families lived in close proximity to Dorothea’s House, at 120 John Street. Ms. Purves worked for Dorothea’s House for the next 32 years.

For over two decades, Ms. Purves’s regular reports to the Board of Trustees cited the highly intensive use made of Dorothea’s House by the Italian children, young adults, and their parents. Ms. Purves’s 1923 report stated that the average monthly attendance was 529, with the number increasing to more than 600 during the winter months. Girls’ and boys’ clubs and fraternal lodges were organized and met regularly; classes in English, citizenship, sewing, embroidery, etc., here held; summer camps for children were created; diverse athletic activities were organized; a playground was built; a well-used library was established and cultural activities flourished.

The Italian government in December 1919 decorated Guy Richards McLane with the Order of the Crown of Italy in recognition of his generous gift to Princeton’s Italian immigrant families. The ceremony was arranged by the Dante Alighieri Society of Jersey City, through its president, Dr. Luigi Pezze. It was reported that practically the entire Italian population of Princeton crowded into Dorothea’s House that evening to witness the ceremony, which included a number of special guests. After a speech by Dr. Pezze, Mr. McLane accepted the honor, and Dr. Henry van Dyke spoke on the meaning of the occasion. To the Italian immigrant families of Princeton, it was a fitting way to express their appreciation of Dorothea’s House.

Prepared by Robert B. Immordino

Following the death of Mr. McLane in 1921, annual memorial programs were held by Princeton’s Italians at the House in honor of their benefactor. In his will, Mr. McLane left three-fifths of his estate as an endowment to finance the work and upkeep of Dorothea’s House.

At Ms. Purves’s suggestion, the Board of Trustees in the early 1930s invited the Princeton Social Service Bureau (the forerunner of today’s Princeton Family Service) to locate and conduct their operations from Dorothea’s House. Ms. Purves felt that, since poor Italians of Princeton comprised the bulk of the Bureau’s clients, the Bureau’s repsence at the House would complement her services. The Social Service Bureau initially occupied one room of Dorothea’s House; Today, the expanded services of Family Services occupies most of the upper floor of Dorothea’s House.

At its Dec. 8, 1937 meeting, the Board of Trustees heard a report from its special committee studying the further usefulness of Dorothea’s House. The committee reported that an increasing movement of the Italian population from the close environs of Dorothea’s House was resulting in a progressive slackening of day-to-day activities. The report concluded that “the programme of the House the last 23 years had largely accomplished its purpose in absorbing the Italian groups in the community.”

During the ensuing months, the Trustees discussed plans concerning increased use of the House by youth groups, including a cooperative arrangement with the Princeton YMCA. In the course of their discussions, the Trustees emphasized that there was not to be any interference with the Italians’ use of the building. A committee was empowered to make decisions, and the arrangement provided for the employment of a full-time Director of Boys Work. Costs of the Director’s position were to be shared by the YMCA and the Dorothea’s House Board of Trustees. The YMCA arrangement as reported to the Board at its October, 1939, meeting had infused “obviously fresh life into the House.”

The joint YMCA-Dorothea’s House arrangement led to expanded youth work at the House. The intervention of World War II saw the young adults of the relatively large Italian families joining the armed forces. The Italian lodges and clubs, comprised mostly of the older generation, continued their meetings and activities at the House.

In 1943, Francis G. Clark was employed by the Mercer County and Princeton YMCA in an executive position. Mr. Clark worked closely with Ms. Purves at Dorothea’s House. When she retired in 1946, Mr. Clark began a formal, long, and close association with the Dorothea’s House Board of Trustees that, after more than 50 years, continues to this day. Shortly after Mr. Clark retired as Executive Secretary of the Princeton YMCA in 1977, the Board asked him to become the Building Manager of Dorothea’s House, to which he agreed.

Prepared by Robert B. Immordino

To accommodate the growing needs of the YMCA and Family Service Association, the Board of Trustees in 1950 funded extensive modernization and renovations of Dorothea’s House. The subsequent construction of the Princeton Italian-American Sportsmen’s Club soon became the focal point for Princeton Italian-American community activities. However a number of Italian-American lodges and clubs continued to meet at Dorothea’s House, and continue to do so today.

Under Frank Clark’s dynamic leadership, many early YMCA programs originated at Dorothea’s House, along with continuing expansion of the Y’s youth work. The Dorothea’s House Board of Trustees provided critically needed funds to help purchase land where the proposed YMCA building was to be constructed. Dorothea’s House also provided office space for the YMCA Building Fund’s campaign. Additionally, Dorothea’s House made a generous contribution to the building fund.

In 1974, with the new YMCA functioning well, and its use of Dorothea’s House declining, the Board of Trustees decided to gradually reduce its annual contributions to the YMCA in order to meet its own financial obligations. Eight years later, the annual contributions were discontinued. In over 40 years of its association with the YMCA, the Dorothea’s House Board of Trustees provided significant direct financial support, and exclusive use of space at Dorothea’s House.

Over the years, the Board of Trustees has also made financial contributions to a variety of Princeton organizations and institutions falling within the purview of the Dorothea van Dyke McLean Association. The largest single contribution was made in 1964 to the Princeton Hospital expansion project to purchase a conference and library room in the hospital’s radiology department. A plaque that states “In memory of Dorothea van Dyke McLane” was erected in the room.

In October, 1962, the Board of Trustees considered and approved a suggestion for a scholarship program. Two Princeton High School students, Mario Venta, and Nick Borelli, were selected as the first recipients after the Trustees consulted with the high school. Mr. Venta went on to attend Rider College, and Mr. Borelli attended Rutgers University.

A year later, the Board of Trustees formally established an annual scholarship program. Among the first three students awarded the scholarship that year was Anthony Cifelli, who, 21 years later, became a member of the Board of Trustees, and in 1989, became the vice president of the board.

From 1963 to 1989, 224 scholarships have been awarded to high school students. The highly succesful scholarship program is another example of the determination of the Dorothea’s House Board of Trustees to continue implementing the function of the Association through changing conditions and needs.

In 1969, the Board established an annual Dorothea van Dyke McLane Award to be presented to a Princeton High School student for proficiency in the study of the Italian language.

Prepared by Robert B. Immordino

In 1985, in appreciation for Frank Clark’s long association and positive contributions to Dorothea’s House, the Board established an annual scholarship in his honor.

The next year, the Board appointed a committee to stimulate wider use of Dorothea’s House by the Princeton Italian-American community. Board members on the committee included Joseph R. Nini, Alessandra Mazzucato, Eleanor Pinelli, Anthony Cifelli, Linda Prospero, and Fred Travisano. The committee, headed by Mrs. Mazzucato and aided by area volunteers, arranged a series of cultural, educational, and social programs. Since then, the programs have included lectures, films, art exhibits, food preparation, and music recitals. The programs have been well attended

Ninety years after its opening, Dorothea’s House remains in excellent condition, a credit to the diligence and care of the Boards of Trustees through the years. Over that time, thirty-eight distinguished local citizens have volunteered their talents and time administering to the affairs of the Dorothea van Dyke McLane Association. Guy Richards McLane’s endowment gift has been prudently invested over the years, providing the Board with the necessary funds to cover the costs of diverse programs, charitable contributions, maintenance, operation, and repairs of Dorothea’s House and other commitments.

As we look back over the past ninety years and review the multiplicity of positive contributions made by Dorothea’s House, we can appreciate the wisedom and foresight of Dorothea’s husband and father in establishing this living memorial to her.

Although originally built as a community center for Princeton’s poor Italian immigrant families, Dorothea’s House has, over the years, been a quiet beacon illuminating and enriching the lives of countless Princetonians. If the walls of the House could speak, one might marvel what wondrous tales they could tell. Dorothea’s House, in the words of Thomas Carlyle, “is like a vein of water flowing hidden underground secretly making the ground green.”

Minutes, Board of Trustees, Dorothea van Dyke McLane Association
Princeton Press, Oct. 10, 1914
Dorothea’s House annual reports: 1916, 1917, 1919-1920, 1922-1923, 1927-1928
Trenton Sunday Times Advertiser, Dec. 14, 1913
The New York Times, Feb. 25, 1912
The New York Times, Apr. 11, 1921
Princeton Directory, 1914
Assessor’s Office, Princeton Borough
NJ Department of Environmental Protection, Historic Preservation Section
Princeton Cemetery
Oral Interviews with Fannie Freda
Town Topics, Jun. 4, 1980
Town Topics, Jun. 11, 1980
Princeton Packet, Dec. 25, 1984
The Times of Trenton, Dec. 23, 1984
Trentonian, Dec. 23, 1984
Records, New Jersey Secretary of State
The Princeton Recollector, Mar. and May, 1976

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