Thursday, July 28, 2011

The 1889 Schuetzen Hall -- 12 St. Mark's Place

The imposing terra cotta panel survives beneath a graffiti-slathered mansard -- photo by Schreibkraft
In the last half of the 19th Century, over a million and a half German immigrants poured into the Lower East Side neighborhood creating what came to be called “Kleindeutchland” or “Little Germany.”  The Bowery was lined with music halls and beer gardens where the locals could relax.

In 1889 another gathering place appeared – the Deutsch-Amerikanische Schuetzen Gesellschaft, or the German-American Shooting Society at No. 12 St. Mark's Place.

The Hall as it appeared in 1893 - King's Handbook of New York (copyright expired)
More commonly referred to as Schuetzen Hall, it was designed by William C. Frohne for a conglomeration of two dozen shooting clubs. The Society’s main thrust was a yearly shooting contest, held normally in Queens or on Long Island, and the hall was used as a place for meetings and conviviality.

Frohne lived in the neighborhood at the time and the Hall was one of his first major commissions. He reflected the Society’s native roots by designing the building in an enthusiastic German Renaissance style. The architect lavished the limestone and brick fa├žade with terra cotta ornamentation; the most pronounced being the enormous cast panel of the fourth floor depicting crossed rifles behind a target. Four flags, a spread-eagle and the motto in German “Unity Makes Strong” completed the elaborate panel. Above, a nearly-vertical slate-tiled mansard featured a severely angled mansard cap between two dormers.

photo by Alice Lum
Separating the second and third floors was a wide frieze announcing the name of the Society and between the third and fourth were decorative terra cotta panels of swags and a female face.

photo by Alice Lum
In the basement were a shooting gallery and a bowling alley. The street level housed a saloon, a large meeting room and a restaurant. The rest of the building was reserved for lodge rooms and an apartment for the caretaker on the fourth floor.

The lodge rooms were rented to a variety of union groups over the decades – the International Molders and Foundry Workers’ Union, The National Federation of Post Office Clerks, the Building Trades Council, and the Gas Workers Union among them.

Carved faces flank the date when construction commenced -- photo by Alice Lum
On the evening after Christmas in 1888 the hall was formally dedicated. The New York Times reported that “The entire building was handsomely draped and festooned with the national colors of Germany and America and with fancy banners.”

The annual shooting contest – called the Schuetzenfest – attracted competing clubs from around the country. The Society along boasted over 1400 members and the scope of the event was staggering. In 1891 as planning got underway, The Times noted that “The complete arrangements for the contest will involve an outlay of nearly $150,000. Fifty rifle ranges will be constructed and immense dancing, reception, and refreshment halls will be erected.”

Not all of the 24 shooting clubs were solely German. Among them were the Christopher Columbus Company, The Grenadier Company No. 11, the Washington Rifles of New Jersey and the Gotham Revolver Club.

With its strong ties to labor unions as well as shooting clubs, the Hall was the site of a reception and dance in December 1909 for the benefit of girl shirtwaist strikers who were arrested and sent to the workhouse for picketing.

On Wednesday, Jun 15, 1904 Little Germany experienced its most devastating tragedy when 1,031 women and children were drowned or burned to death in the fiery sinking of the paddle steamer, the General Slocum. The group, organized by St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, was on a pleasure excursion for the day.

Three months later a group of 300 survivors and bereaved met at Schuetzen Hall to demand the punishment of the negligent ship owners and the Federal Inspectors who “willfully and dastardly permitted this unfit vessel to be in commission.”

Charles Dersch announced “While most of us are of German birth or descent, we are here to demand our rights as American citizens.”

The fight for those rights would go on for years.

The group was back at the Hall in August 1911 protesting the release of the boat’s Captain, William Van Schaick and again on December 21, 1912 when President Taft restored the captain’s citizenship.

The Slocum disaster eventually led to the end of Little Germany. The devastated community never really recovered and slowly the community dissolved as residents moved away. In 1920 the Society sold its headquarters to Anna M. Brindell.

In the late 1920s it became a homeless shelter called The Tub, run by Urbain Ledoux.  Ledoux, known to the men he helped as “Mr. Zero,” accommodated 135 homeless men on steamer chairs and advertised “auctions” of the men’s services in order to find them temporary work.

As the Great Depression hit New York, desperate men flocked to The Tub for a free meal and hopes of employment. On New Year’s Day 1929, over two thousand homeless men ate dinner here. The line outside was unbroken from early morning through the afternoon.

The financial burden of maintaining the facility became too much for Ledoux, however, and by the end of the year he owed Anna Brindell $7,345 in rent and was dispossessed.  She sold the building the following year.

In 1943, until 1962, it became the home of the Polish community group called the St. Mark’s Community Center. As the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood changed, it was the Ukrainian Culture Center during the 1960s, and became the original site of the St. Mark’s Bookshop. Today the ground floor is home to a restaurant. 

The vibrant neighborhood has greatly changed since the days when German was the dominant language. Yet scattered throughout there are reminders of Little Germany like William Frohne’s remarkable Schuetzen Hall. It survives in a state of remarkable preservation and was designated a New York City landmark in 2001.

2 comments:

  1. I was in college and living on East 7th between 1st and 2nd when the St. Mark's Bookshop was in this building. What a great place it was when it was there.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In 1917 my grandfather, Charles A Mayer was President of the International Cooks' League of New York, Local 719, headquartered in this hall. such a beautiful old building.

    ReplyDelete