In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “women’s holiday houses” were large homes located in bucolic destinations where working women could take an affordable summer vacation in a natural setting. The single-gender aspect of these establishments was a practical means of protection for its inhabitants from the coarseness of coed boarding houses.
An early example of a working women’s retreat on Long Island was the Holiday House in Miller Place which was operated by the New York Association of Working Girls’ Societies, an organization that was established in 1885. A similar house in Locust Valley, The Downing Vacation House, was operated by the Brooklyn Association of Working Girls' Societies beginning in the early 1890s and was the summer home of "hundreds of Brooklyn working girls" according to an 1892 article from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. These holiday houses allowed young women from urban boroughs to enjoy summer activities such as bathing, horseback riding, bicycling, games, and dances.
By the late 1920s and early 30s, the holiday house concept had transitioned from purely recreational to become centers of vocation that provided young, often disadvantaged women with room and board along with thorough training in the domestic arts. This allowed women to easily find jobs in the surrounding areas with wealthy families in need of hired help. As a result, they were able to support themselves financially despite the poverty of their personal origins.
One such facility, The Greta-Theo Holiday House, was located in Roslyn at 57 West Shore Road. Originally known as the George Washington Denton House, it was built in 1875 by George W. Denton, a local lawyer of prominence in the Roslyn area.
In 1919 the property was acquired by Locust Valley socialite Allene Tew Buchard, the wife of General Electric vice-chairman Anson Buchard. Allene renamed the property after her daughter, Greta and son, Theodore who both died in 1918, she from the Spanish flu pandemic, and he as a soldier in WWI.
As detailed in a Brooklyn Life article from August 1919:
The Gretatheo [sic] Holiday House is open to any respectable, self-supporting young woman to spend a week’s or a month’s vacation. There are boats and various accessories for sports at the vacation house, which stands on a knoll near Hempstead Harbor.
A biography written by Annejet van Der Zijl entitled An American Princess: The Many Lives of Allene Tew paints a hands-on picture of the facility’s founder:
Over the following summers, she would be a familiar sight at the wheel of a truck filled to the brim with live chickens or cabbages and other vegetables from the farm at Birchwood, all intended for her protégées.
Following the death of Anson Burchard in 1927, Allene remarried to the German Prince Heinrich XXXIII Reuss of Köstritzn. In 1930, she donated the house to the Girls' Service League of America before leaving Long Island for Europe.
Under the direction of the Girls' Service League, the Greta-Theo Holiday House was repurposed as a training facility for domestic workers. The value of this training program is evidenced by news articles from that time regarding the successful placement of women in households in need of service. “where they receive minimum wages of $35 monthly, at least one afternoon and night off weekly, alternate Sundays off and annual vacations with pay” as one New York Times feature from August 3rd, 1935 states. The same article notes that the term “household assistants” was considered by the league to be the preferred nomenclature over “servants”. This distinction indicates that the goal was not for these women to be exploited into menial subservience, but rather to gain expert skills in the art of domesticity. An earlier Times article from March 28th of the same year outlines the “details of the experimental project” as related by Stella A. Miner, the director of the Girls' Service League:
Courses include dietetics, cookery, table service, etiquette, child health and care, personal hygiene, ethics and art of homemaking, care and cleaning of clothing and textiles and household economics. There was a special course in employer-employe [sic] relations.
Based on this description, the program bears significant resemblance to the “Family And Consumer Sciences" (formerly “Home Economics”) courses that are still taught in some high schools but have begun to fade from the curriculum.
Though training young women to keep house for rich families may not seem like the modern feminist ideal, at the time it was a vital source of charity and hope for the girls who benefited from their services by receiving gainful employment. It also gave them a chance, as with the original intention of the Holiday House concept, to live in safe, comfortable surroundings away from the squalor of factories, sweatshops, and gritty urban environments.
Brooklyn Eagle June 6, 1892 - Downing Vacation House - Clam Bake