Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Resiliant 1887 Webster Hall -- 121 East 11th Street


At a time when most Victorian architects in New York City were vying for prestigious commissions for which they would be long-remembered, Charles Rentz, Jr. toiled away in his office in the German Savings Bank Building designing tenement buildings and middle-class apartment houses in the Lower East Side, along with some factories and stables.

Until 1880 the aspiring architect was listed in the city directory as a beer dealer; however by 1886 his architectural business had grown to the point that he had to move to his roomier office in the bank building. That same year construction began on his most memorial project: Webster Hall.

In July of that year former cigar-manufacturer Charles Goldstein had leased the land at No. 119-123 East 11th Street from Rutherford Stuyvesant for the hefty sum of $2000 a year. Goldman was in the meeting and dance hall business by now, already owning the popular Clinton Garden. He moved quickly to develop his new project. Only a month later the Real Estate Record & Builders Guide mentioned that Rentz was designing “a large ball and concert hall, to be called Webster Hall.”

The Guide went on to describe “a brick front trimmed with brown and Nova Scotia stone and terra cotta. The building will contain a main hall about 40 feet high, also a gallery, private boxes and reception rooms.”

Two months later construction began.

Next door was Saint Ann’s Roman Catholic school and when, in December, the pastor of the church discovered that Goldstein had applied for a liquor license he filed opposition; although to no avail. As the building rose, The New York Times estimated its final cost at $75,000, saying that it was “intended for balls, receptions, Hebrew weddings, and sociables, and not a ballroom.”

An early sketch of Webster Hall shows the original, complex mansard roof -- NYPL Collection
While many substantial buildings of the time were stressing “fire-proof” construction, Rentz went with spruce timbers for the interior framing. Goldstein had an apartment for his family included on the first floor.

A far cry from his tenement structures, Rentz’s Webster Hall was a splashy Queen Ann-style entertainment hall of pressed Philadelphia brick, ornate terra cotta panels and brownstone trim. Huge, decorative cast iron masonry supports embellished the fa├žade between the second and third floors and the whole was topped by two stately mansard caps with elaborate dormers on either side of a steep central mansard tower. In February 1867, just six months after the first spade of earth was removed, Webster Hall was ready for its grand opening.
Musical instruments, cherubs and masks in terra cotta ornament the facade.
The Hall was a success and within four years Goldstein recognized the need to expand. In November 1891 he leased from Stuyvesant the plot next door where the home of Alfred and Eliza Goetz stood at No. 125. Two months later he filed for construction of a $10,000 annex that would include his family’s apartment in the basement, a saloon, restaurant and coat check rooms on the first floor, and a ballroom on the second with a gallery and sitting rooms on the third.

Construction of the annex began in May and was completed in November. The architect did not attempt to match the original structure, designing a Renaissance Revival building with large arched windows; however the two flowed nicely together.

Some of the exuberant terra cotta ornamentation is in heavy, deep relief.
From its earliest days Webster Hall was used not merely for entertainments and concerts, but was the frequent site of meetings and protests. On November 4, 1892 it was the meeting place of union workers who came together to endorse the nomination of Grover Cleveland and Adlai E. Stevenson. In a somewhat less-than-unbiased report, The New York Times said, “It was the earnest protest of honest men who work with their hands day after day for their bread against an iniquitous tax that robs the workingman for the benefit of the wealthy manufacturer and monopolist.”

Webster Hall in 1913.  An elaborate entrance canopy stretches to the curb.  -- photo International News Service
In 1887 the Progressive Labor Party was born here and in October of 1898 a bizarre meeting was held by Richard Crocker of Tammany Hall who courted the votes of deaf mutes. “Some Republican deaf mutes attended and tried to convert their acquaintances, but one red-haired man indignantly replied in sign language that he was a Democrat to the backbone, and would vote for Van Wyck. The Republican tempter thereupon desisted. Other similar occurrences were noted,” reported The Times.

Upon Goldstein’s death in 1898 his widow, Annie, lost the Hall to foreclosure in March 1899; however she rapidly regained the leasehold. The non-fire-proof building experienced the first of a series of fires in 1902; although no serious damage was sustained in that fire nor the one that occurred a decade later in 1912.

A year later a fund-raising event for the socialist magazine The Masses initiated an annual masquerade ball that became famous country-wide.  And it was here in 1914 that the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America was formed, three years after the tragic Triangle Waist Company fire near Washington Square.

In 1923 the Wand Holding Company purchased the building for $65,000, doing a $220,000 remodeling of the space in 1928.

Then in 1930 fire took its toll on Webster Hall. A “mysterious explosion” resulted in a conflagration that destroyed the two top floors, including the wonderful mansard roof. Damages were estimated at $200,000; almost exactly what the owners had spent on renovations two years earlier.

Repairs were made, without the mansard, and in 1932 Webster Manor, Inc. leased the building at $22,000 a year “for catering, meeting rooms, dance hall and kindred purposes.” Webster Hall became a destination for young couples who danced to big band orchestras throughout the Great Depression years.

Author E. B. White wrote of a 2:00 am visit one morning during that period. “Webster Hall was surrounded by a ring of taxis a mile long. At the door, little groups of gate-crashers slunk about, drunk but hopeful. Inside, the familiar Webster Hall smell came drifting to meet us: sudden illness and old merriment.”

Here the young parents of Martin Scorsese would go dancing, and it was here that Pete Hamill’s parents met.

Once again, in 1938, the Hall was swept by fire. Firemen fought the blaze for three hours before it was extinguished. By then a watchman and a porter were dead and the interior was gutted.

Eleven years later a smoldering cigarette ignited a pile of trash, resulting in a 5-alarm fire that, once again, destroyed the interior and roof.

Refusing to be defeated, Webster Hall again rose from the ashes. RCA Victor Records established a recording studio here from 1953 to 1968. Perry Como, Lena Horne, Stan Getz, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong among others recorded here and Broadway casts assembled here to do cast recordings; among them Mary Martin in Peter Pan, Liza Minelli in Flora, the Red Menace and Julie Andrews in The Boy Friend.

Concerts and meetings continued to be held here throughout the 20th Century, including a 1969 cab driver-owners protest against gypsy cabs. In 1980 the rock club The Ritz established itself in the building and crowds thronged to the hall to hear artists like Madonna, Eric Clapton, Kiss, Sting, Prince, and Tina Turner until it closed in 1989.

Despite a series of fires, exterior architectural details still remain -- photo by Beyond My Ken
Today the irrepressible Webster Hall continues its legacy as a destination for the bohemian, the political and the cutting edge of music and entertainment. While a succession of fires and remodeling have taken their toll on the architecture, the hall used by socialists and reformers, birth control activist Margaret Sanger and the Knights of Labor, Robert F. Kennedy and musicians from Beverly Sills to B. B. King, remains a significant part of Manhattan’s social, architectural and entertainment history.

In his 2004 book, "Downtown: my Manhattan," Pete Hamill wrote “On some nights now, I pass Webster Hall, at 125 East Eleventh Street, loud with hip-hop and DJs and crowds of the young. I hope that at least a few frantic young New Yorkers will find one another in the way my parents did. Someday, if they have long lives, they might even ache for the simplicities of Webster Hall.”

non-credited photographs taken by the author

3 comments:

  1. My grandparents met at another still in-use hall - Roseland Ballroom - and would dance at Webster as well. It was not lost on me at all in the ate 1980s as a teenager and seeing bands at the Ritz - while you mention a number of A-listers, for me it was the Sugar Cubes, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Pixies... it was $12 to get in to see live some of the musicians who defined my youth and carried into my adulthood. And it was more special that I knew then that my grandparents stood on the very same floors forming their own youth and adulthood... we are so lucky places like this are still thriving...

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  2. In October 1910, Annie Goldstein Weissager transferred the lease of Webster Hall and Annex to the Wanderman Brothers (Charles, Isidor, and Walter), of the Wanderman
    Construction Co., who were also the proprietors of Clinton Garden (later Apollo Hall) at No. 126 Clinton Street.

    The 1923 transfer to Wand Holding Co. was some sort of subsidiary of the Wanderman Bros.

    In November 1925, the property in its entirety was transferred by the Wandermans to the recently-incorporated Webster Enterprises, Inc. (Harris Reiner, president; Aaron Rappaport, vice president).

    (The Wandermans are my family; the story in the family is that they sold the building to some Capone-connected people. The "mysterious explosion" and insurance claim is either the proof of or the cause of story)

    i'd be curious if you had any info on "clinton garden" that we've both mentioned here

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