Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Beethoven Hall -- No. 210 East 5th Street


The essential mansard roof was sadly lost in a fire -- photo by Alice Lum
An important aspect of the immigrant neighborhoods in 19th century Manhattan was the social halls.  In the Lower East Side, populated mostly by Germans, there were over 30 such places where weddings, celebrations, dances, political and labor meetings and other gatherings were held.

Among the first to be built and among the most popular was Beethoven Hall at No. 210 East 5th Street, erected around 1860.   Built in the up-to-date French Second Empire style, it rose four stories to an elegant mansard roof.  Stone quoins outlined the fa├žade and the central section; while paired and tri-sectioned window openings were treated with the latest in Victorian taste.

The hall was tragic scene of a group funeral in January, 1880 following the horrific destruction of another nearby social hall, Turn Hall by fire.    The joyous celebration of a wedding at Turn Hall on Sunday, January 4, lasted from 4:00 in the afternoon until well after midnight.   Around 3:00 am the last of the hall workers had gone to bed upstairs when fire broke out below.

Before morning the hall was gutted, eleven people were dead, and others were badly burned or seriously injured from jumping from windows to the pavement below.    Later that same day the funeral for six of the victims was held in Beethoven Hall.  The building was draped in black bunting and black fabric was hung from the ceiling inside to form a canopy.

Above the dance floor a flying cherub hung from a wire where it normally swayed gently above the heads of the dancing revelers.  Today it was hung with black crepe.    The coffins bore the German names of those who had come to America seeking something better in life:  Margaretha Gelb, Willie Gelb, Therese Erhardt, Louise Schmitt, Henry Gehrweiler and Annie Bauer.  A cushion of flowers  sat on the casket of little Willie Gelb with the words in German “From his Playmates.”

photo by Alice Lum
The Daily Globe estimate the crowd of mourners along Fifth Street at 10,000 and onlookers filled the windows of the neighboring tenements as the funeral procession left Beethoven Hall.   Leading the solemn group was the band of the Aschenbrodel Society, playing dirges sung by the Turner Liedertafel and Schiller Bund.

Events at Beethoven Hall were, most often however, happier affairs.  Union groups regularly met and on New Year’s Day in 1888, having installed its new officers, the Typographical Union No. 6 “made merry” here, according to The Evening World.

That year the hall gained a special place in the hearts of union members.  As reported in The Evening World on April 12, Anthony Somers, the new proprietor made the decision that “it will be a strict union place and where union help only will be employed.”

The working class at the time was expected to put in a full seven days’ work, despite scriptural restrictions.  But a campaign for a “free Sunday”—a guaranteed day off from work--was gaining impetus.    Later that year, on September 16, The League for the Protection of Personal Liberty met at the hall.  Among the decisions that night, as reported in The New York Times, was that “No attempt will be made to influence German votes in regard to the Presidential election, but every German will be urged to lay aside political preferences in the State and municipal tickets and vote for that candidate who will pledge himself in favor of a bill providing for a ‘free Sunday.”

The hall was host to a wide variety of groups and entertainments.  On December 16 that same year the Daughters of Israel held their 21st anniversary and ball.  Other groups, like the Atlanta Club and the employees of the Banner Brothers company, held their annual balls in the hall.

The Hall stretched far back from East 5th Street, enabling the accommodation of the large groups -- photo by Alice Lum
It was here in 1895 that the American Bowling Congress was organized.  On September 9 the first standardized rules for the game were laid out and major national bowling competitions were initiated.

As the turn of the century approached, Beethoven Hall was used by the Manhattan Ladies’ Relief Association to receive donations of food, fuel and money for the relief of the poor, and the People’s Singing Classes were held here.    In December 1905 Joe Bernstein, “the Ghetto champion,” attempted a comeback in the boxing ring after a long absence.   Bernstein faced Tommy Daly in a three-round exhibition match.  It was a decisive evening for Bernstein whose continuing career hinged on the outcome of the bout.

But along with all the charitable, sports and political interests, it was the unions who were most drawn to Beethoven Hall.   In January 1895 long hours and grueling conditions were on the minds of the clothing cutters when they met here to consider what actions could be taken to establish and 8-hour work day.    In 1905 over 500 members of the Eccentric Engineers, Local 120 of the Industrial Workers of the World attended dinner in the hall.  Members from nearly all of the engineering organizations of the city were there.

Later that year, in October, William Randolph Hearst appeared in the hall in a campaign stop.  The Times said “William R. Heart went down into the Anarchist belt of the east side last night and made his biggest hit of the campaign.”  After Hearst promised half-price gas (he was referring to lighting gas, not automobile fuel), and higher wages for the police, firemen and street cleaners, the band struck up “America” and he received a roaring ovation.

In 1914 the Hebrew-American Typographical Union No. 83 celebrated its 25th anniversary here and the Typographical Journal exclaimed “And it was some celebration, believe me!”  The journal reported that Beethoven Hall “was very tastefully decorated with the national emblems, silver shields and a profusion of flowers."

Members and families of the Hebrew-American Typographical Union No.83 celebrate at Beethoven Hall in 1914 -- The Typographical Journal (copyright expired)
The atmosphere was not so merry that year when James Lord of the United Mine Workers of America spoke here.   Labor strikes in the mines owned by John D. Rockefeller had resulted in violence and the union had pleaded with President Wilson to sent in troops to quell the fighting.  When the soldiers were finally sent in, the union feared the move was to support the management, not the workers.

“We do not know why he sent the troops,” said Lord, “but if it was to drive us back to the old slavery, he won’t be able to do it.  If he tries or if he surrenders us to the militia, then it stands to reason that we will not again try to fight the hired gunmen of John D. Rockefeller.  Instead we will go after the Rockefellers themselves.”

As the unions became stronger, they were fertile ground for opportunistic mobsters.   Once in control of the unions, the gangsters used brute muscle to force business owners to comply.   On March 9, 1914 the board of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Alliance met at Beethoven Hall “for the purpose of devising some ways and means to straighten out the non-union saloons on East 59th Street,” according to The Mixer and Server, the official journal of the union.

Union history was made here again on January 2, 1915 when the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America was formed here.   But perhaps the most momentous event was when Leon Trotsky addressed a crowd on February 2, 1917.  The communist stirred the group saying “You do not want any militarism or any government which is not of any help to the working class, but which is always prepared ready to fire on the working class, and is the enemy of the working class.  It is now time that you do away with it once and forever.”

Times change.  By the end of the century few people knew that a German neighborhood needed a social hall in 1860 and that Beethoven Hall was the result.  No one remembered that the space was important to socialist and labor movements and that heated, threatening words had been uttered here.

Instead it became home to Mother’s Sound Stages, a film studio.  After a major 1992 fire that destroyed the mansard roof and upper floors, it was transformed in 1993 to the New York Kunsthalle.   Appropriately German-named (translating to “art hall”), it was the concept of Martin Kunz who directed the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne, Switzerland.

A group of investors earmarked $10 million to purchase and renovate the structure into a gallery to showcase the works of emerging and unknown artists, and experimental works.  The new space includes a lecture hall, library, restaurant and bar, and archived.   The upper floors were converted to living and studio space for artists.

photo by Alice Lum
Among them was photographer Gregory Colbert who lived in a 10-room, 6,750 square foot apartment.    In announcing that he would sell his space in 2009, The New York Observer called Beethoven Hall “a relatively anonymous building” that “looks like some sort of Victorian train station.”

The unflattering description did not discourage Colbert from pricing his apartment at just under $20 million.

The renovation of Beethoven Hall required a well-designed transformation of a ground floor window to a doorway that accesses the upper residences, and the loss of the mansard is a major disappointment.  But overall the elegant 1860 structure with its deep social and political history is a hidden gem on an East Village side street.

4 comments:

  1. incredible article and such thorough research! had a walk past beethoven hall and thought it was so peculiar that i had to run a search, what an amazing find. now i have to ask , did you take a look at some of the names on the buzzer? ashes and snow, flying elephants, r.kelly?? one could only hope to see inside such a east village treasure!!!

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  2. And nowww..this historic site where Trotsky and Trade Unionists spoke in the "Anarchist's Belt" has become a palatial residence for some rich f*kkw*t
    http://www.sothebyshomes.com/nyc/sales/0136308#floorplans

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  3. Worked at Mothers Sound Stages in the 80's - We found a sealed room at the top of the building with flags and assorted ledgers with names from the union meetings that were held there. Sadly we did not remove them, so the fire probably destroyed all that was stored at that time.

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