Monday, December 16, 2013

The Lost Astor Place Opera House -- No. 13 Astor Place

The Astor Place Opera House sat within the most exclusive of Manhattan neighborhoods -- "Views of New York," Henry Hoff, publisher, 1850, from the collection of the New York Public Library

Italian opera was not unknown in New York City in the 1840s.  But it was definitely endangered.  Signor Ferdinand Palmo had opened his Italian Opera House in the renovated Stoppani’s Arcade Baths on Chambers Street on February 3, 1844.  The New-York Tribune later recalled “The house seated about eight hundred persons, the seats being hard benches, with slats across the back shoulder high.  Opera lovers given to luxury were permitted to upholster their benches.”

Palmo's Opera House predated the Astor Place house by three years -- New-York Tribune, August 25, 1907 (copyright expired)
Unfortunately for Palmo, his venture failed.  Wealthy citizens, aware that Europeans viewed New Yorkers as little better than unrefined buffoons, rushed to establish a new opera house.

“In order that Italian opera might not perish from the earth but live on, surrounded by the architectural splendor appropriate to it, one hundred and fifty men of social prominence got together and guaranteed to support it for five years, and Messrs. Foster, Morgan and Colles built the Astor Place Opera House,” recorded the Tribune several decades later.

The magnificent new Astor Place Opera House opened on November 22, 1847, located among the mansions of the city’s most exclusive residential neighborhood.  Unlike Palmo’s theater, the Astor Place Opera House provided luxury to its wealthy patrons.

The classically-inspired theater sat prominently within the somewhat wedge-shaped site, and guests entered through a stone portico on Astor Place.  Two-story pilasters and engaged columns gave the brick-and-stone structure an imperious air.  Victorian critic Richard Grant White called it “one of the most attractive theatres ever erected.”  Conductor and impresario Max Maretzek, in 1855, described his reaction on opening night.  “It contained somewhere about 1,100 excellent seats in parquet (the Parisian parterre), dress circle and first tier, with some seven hundred in the gallery.  Its principal feature was that everybody could see, and what is of infinitely greater consequence, could be seen.”  Maretzek recognized New York society’s need to impress one another.  “Never, perhaps, was any theatre built that afforded a better opportunity for a display of dress.”

Nevertheless, Richard Grant White felt that the wealthy patrons showed restraint on opening night.  “Rarely has there been an assembly, at any time or in any country, so elegant, with such a generally suffused air of good breeding; and yet it could not be called splendid in any one of its circles.  At the Astor Place Opera House that form of opera toilet for ladies which is now peculiar to New York and a few other American cities came into vogue—a demi-toilet of marked elegance and richness, and yet without that display either of apparel and trimmings or of the wearer’s personal charms which is implied by full evening dress in fashionable parlance.”

Unlike in the Palmo Opera House, opera-goers now sat in luxurious upholstered seats.  The founders of the Astor Place Opera House understood, as the New-York Tribune later explained, “opera must have an elegant environment if it is to succeed.”

The elegant interior was transformed for the New York Fire Department Ball--from the collection of the New York Public Library

Shortly after the opening Peterson Magazine wondered whether the concept of season box-holders was a good idea.  “This opera house is to be patronized chiefly by subscribers, an experiment for this country, and perhaps a doubtful one.”  Nevertheless, the writer was highly impressed with the patrons on opening night.  “However, on the night when the Astor Opera House opened, there was a display of beauty and fashion in the dress circle altogether unparalleled.”

The owners intended to maintain a high-class patronage at the Astor Place, as was evidenced in admission prices.  When seats were available for “Lucia Di Lamermoor” in November 1848, an advertisement noted that tickets for the Parquet and 1st and 2nd Tiers cost $1.00—about $25 today.

While the wealthy enjoyed the near-exclusivity of their neighborhood opera house, the general public was offended.  A writer in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book later complained “The monopoly of the best seats by certain subscribers and stockholders of the Astor Place Opera House, has been the great objection and great drawback to that establishment.  To the masses of the rest of the community, it has an appearance of exclusiveness and monopoly which will not be tolerated by them.”

The dichotomy between classes, as well as the rivalry between England and America, boiled over on May 10, 1849.  Edwin Forrest was the reigning American tragedian; the position held in England by Irish-born William Macready.  A fierce rivalry already existed between the two actors and local loyalties to Forrest were intense.  When the Astor Opera House booked Mccready to play Macbeth, thousands crowded into the streets of the fashionable neighborhood to voice their dissatisfaction.

While the moneyed patrons inside applauded the British actor; scores of disgruntled immigrants who had paid their $1 admission were intent on disrupting the performance.  A pamphlet with the unwieldy title “Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House on the Night of May 10th 1949, with the Quarrels of Forrest and Macready, including all the Causes which led to that Awful Tragedy!” laid out the details of that night:

“Around this edifice, we say, a vast crowd was gathered.  On the stage the English actor Macready was trying to play the part of Macbeth, in which he was interrupted by hisses and hootings, and encouraged by the cheers of a large audience, who had crowded the house to sustain him.  On the outside a mob was gathering, trying to force an entrance into the house, and throwing volleys of stones at the barricaded windows.  In the house the police were arresting those who made the disturbance—outside they were driven back by volleys of paving stones.”

The rioters broke windows and attempted to set fire to the Opera House -- "Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House" 1849 (copyright expired)
The rabble turned its focus as much against the exclusive neighborhood and its residents as against the actor.  Bricks and rocks crashed through mansion windows, and panic ensued.  The Seventh Regiment responded, firing into the crowd to quell the disorder and driving away what Harper’s Bazaar called “the bleeding rioters, demoralized and defeated.”  When it was over 25 were dead and 120 hurt.

Although the theater suffered severe damage to its reputation—it earned the nickname the “Dis-Astor Place Opera House”—it continued providing its high-end clientele with grand opera.  And opera throughout the 19th century in New York was more about the audience than the performance.  On November 4, 1851 The New York Times reported on that season’s opening night.  “We never before witnessed so brilliant a dress circle as that which graced the opening of the short season which Max [Maretzek] has been forced to limit his representations in this city.  The parquette and dress circle were filled with ladies, and in fact there was a perfect jam throughout the whole house.  Steffanone made her first appearance for many months in the role of Norma.  She was warmly received, and though her singing was very irregular and faulty, the audience appeared willing to overlook everything, finely applauding her through the entire Opera.”

Some later historians blamed the riot for the eventual failure of the Astor Place Opera House  But it was actually a clever ploy by William Niblo, the proprietor of rival Niblo’s Garden, that undid the theater.  The New-York Tribune would report that he, “having vowed that he would ruin the Astor Place Opera House, succeeded in destroying its odor of aristocracy by hiring it for a dog show.”

By booking the theater under an assumed name, Niblo was able to secure it for what The New York Times called “a novel species of entertainment.”  On June 8, 1852 the newspaper reported “The grand troupe of trained monkeys, dogs and goats, just brought over by Mr. Niblo, from Paris, made their first appearance.” 

When the owners of the Opera House realized what was going on, they served an injunction on Niblo “forbidding the promised performance on the ground that it was not ‘respectable’ enough for that House.”  Niblo countered that the “self-elected Censors” could not deem the performance "not respectable" because they had not seen it.  His argument held and the curtain rose.

The audience was shown “half a dozen monkeys, of different species, large and small, seated at table—where they ate dinner, served by a couple of comical little fellows of the same race.”  The act was followed by horse-riding dogs and monkeys, and “sundry similar feats.”

The snobbery of the Opera House owners was fodder for ridicule.  The New York Times said “The fastidiousness of the owners of the Opera house was at once seen to be a most absurd affectation of gentility,” and the comic magazine the Lantern published a cartoon of “dandified sprigs” in the lobby of the building.  A small boy says to his father, “Why, Pa, how much larger the monkeys look off the stage, than they did on.”

Two days later Judges Duer and Bosworth decided in favor of Niblo, saying the show was “respectable” in spite “of the fastidiousness and ultra-exclusiveness of the owners of that establishment.”  The Times unabashedly opined “This is a substantial triumph of the doctrines of liberty, equality and fraternity, over aristocratic pretension.”

It was the beginning of the end for the Astor Opera House.  The New-York Tribune later remarked “’Donetti’s highly respectable company of trained animals’ would appear every evening until further notice.  Such was the inglorious end of the opera house.”

Far downtown at the corner of Beekman and Nassau Streets Clinton Hall had been dedicated on November 2, 1830.  The Mercantile Library was housed here; but by the time that dogs, goats and monkeys were treading the boards of the Opera House the library had outgrown the its building.

In 1884 The History of New York City noted “So, after much deliberation, the association purchased the Astor Place Opera-House, which was fitted up with a capacity of one hundred and twenty-thousand volumes.  In 1854 the library was moved into the new home, a distance of two miles from its former dwelling-place.”
The renovated Clinton Hall as it appeared around 1875 -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York,-Astor-Place.%5d-2F3XC5UP4EMX.html

The Clinton Hall trustees spent $140,000 on the building and invested another $115,000 to adapt it for the purposes of the library, lecture rooms, reading rooms and other areas like meeting rooms.  The New York Times remarked that the “great desideratum in rooms devoted to library purposes is not only an abundance of light, but that it shall be properly distributed.”

The Lecture Hall was in the basement along with numerous classrooms used by the Young Men’s Association.  A one-time subscription fee of $100 entitled a member of the Clinton Hall Association to all the privileges of the library for life, without an annual fee.

Throughout the subsequent decades the building would be used for a variety of purposes—art exhibitions and auctions, lectures and political speeches, plant and flower shows, and machinery exhibits.  Upstairs some offices were leased to commercial enterprises.  In 1864 E. D. Hudson, M.D. supplied artificial limbs.  The Times noted that “United States soldiers and marines furnished without charge, by order of Surgeon-Gen, Hammond, U.S.A., and Surgeon Whelan, U.S.N.”

By 1880 the once highly-respected Mercantile Library had changed.  The New York Times took a swipe at the 50-year old institution on October 17 of that year calling it “an institution established and once existing for the benefit of merchants’ clerks and others of like position, but now chiefly managed as a circulating library for the benefit of female novel-readers.”

At one point a savings bank leased space in the building -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library
Five years later the Clinton Hall Association gave the old building a cosmetic make-over with a coat of red paint.  On November 9, 1885 The Times said “it has been transformed from a dull, dusty, drab color into a glaring modern red.  The transformation has the effect of giving to Astor-place a new building, as Clinton Hall has borne its unobtrusive dusty drab for many years without change.”

A new paint job was not sufficient to salvage the grand old structure, however.  The valuable volumes—there were now 229,366 of them--were in danger of being lost should fire break out in the aging building.  The Association laid plans for a new, modern structure that would sit on the site.

On March 9, 1890 the New-York Tribune reported that “Another old landmark is about to disappear,” and reminded readers that “Old Clinton Hall has had a curious and interesting history.”  The newspaper added “Now in turn another building is to become the new Clinton Hall, and the Opera House, with its brief success, its bloody riot and musty treasures, will soon be known only in memory and old prints.”

The newspaper was right.
The 1891 Clinton Hall still stands at No. 13 Astor Place -- photograph by Beyond My Ken

1 comment:

  1. Still so amazing how quickly entire neighborhoods changes in NY, going from quiet elegant residential zones to bustling commercial districts in but a few decades