Saturday, July 12, 2014

The 1890 Eckstein Bldg -- No. 62 East 4th Street

photo by Alice Lum
By 1889 the neighborhood of East 4th Street between the Bowery and Second Avenue was squarely in the midst of Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.  The area, a few blocks south of Astor Place, had been an elegant residential enclave through the Civil War years.  Now it bustled with German-speaking immigrants who lived mostly in tenement buildings and converted homes.

On May 29, 1880 Jacobina Hinckel leased the house at No. 64 East 4th Street to Victor Eckstein.  The five-year contract called for $3,000 a year rent—around $5,500 per month today.  Eckstein established his restaurant in the converted house and nine years later he was ready to expand.  He purchased the old building next door at No. 62 and on March 1, 1889 architect Max Schroff filed plans for a new structure.

The following day the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide described the proposed building as “five-story brick and iron restaurant, lodge room and dwelling” with a tin roof.  Eckstein’s structure would cost him about $35,000.

Somewhat grand and certainly unusual, it was completed early in 1890.  Brick pilasters framed the entrance of the first floor where Eckstein’s Restaurant operated (it extended into the basement as well).  The second and third floors—large assembly halls that were rented for various gatherings like political meetings and social functions—were distinguished by two sets of French windows on the second floor and oversized arched openings at the third.  A rather peculiar arrangement of stone-framed windows shouldering an open, classical loggia formed the third story.  Above a stone cornice the Ecksteins’ living quarters featured a row of Romanesque arched openings.

photo by Alice Lum

Because the Ecksteins--a family of eight--lived on the uppermost floor, Schroff was tasked by law with providing a fire escape.  His problem was how to incorporate the escape without ruining the design of the façade.  His solution was a spiraling cast iron staircase which he disguised behind an unusual basketweave cylinder of iron.  Wrapping the top of the mesh tube was a galvanized iron band announcing BUILT MS 1889.  Rather than incorporating Victor Eckstein's monogram into the design, Schroff memorialized his own.

The architect included his own initials in the frieze of the fire escape -- photo by Alice Lum
The meeting halls—known as Eckstein’s Metropolitan Assembly Rooms-- were soon booked.  The German Photographic Society of New York, organized in 1868, held regular meetings here on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month at 8:15 p.m.  And here Leo Zitsmann and his wife celebrated their silver wedding anniversary on Wednesday night, July 11, 1894.  But the hall would be used more by trade unions than for club meetings and wedding receptions. 

Labor unions had been gaining a toehold in America since the end of the Civil War, following the lead of the English movement.  By now unions were firmly established and fought to obtain humane working conditions and a reasonable wage for their members.   In 1893 New York’s waiters were demanding increased wages.  On May 6 The New York Times announced “the International Hotel Employes’ Alliance held a mass meeting yesterday afternoon at 62 East Fourth Street to organize down-town restaurant and hotel waiters.”

Meanwhile, Jacob Becker was a regular at the restaurant.  The Evening World said, on May 12, 1893, “Becker spent much of his time at Victor Eckstein’s restaurant, 62 East fourth street, where he is well known.  He is married, and lives in Fourth street, near First avenue.”  He had been a professional cornet player until a few years earlier; then a scuffle put an end to his career and his mental stability.

“Becker was formerly a good musician.  Several years ago he got into a fight with another musician, who struck him with a bottle, knocking one of his eyes out.  He now wears a glass eye,” explained the newspaper.  “The blow he received affected his mind, and he has since been insane at intervals.”

Becker now made a living selling musical instruments.  His bouts of instability were well known in the neighborhood.  “In one of his crazy spells, some time ago, he startled the neighborhood by hanging a lot of instruments out on a wash line,” said The Evening World.  “One of Becker’s peculiarities was to stand in the street and make faces and gestures at the moon.”

Untreated, Jacob Becker’s spells were sometimes dangerous.  At one point he threatened his wife with a knife; but was disarmed before he could harm her.  “He also wanted to throw her out of the window,” mentioned the World.

The end of his public displays came in May 1893 when he conked a passing woman on the head with a cornet.  Her screams attracted a policeman who, in turn, was knocked on the head with the instrument.  When the policeman tried to arrest Becker, the 37-year old became so violent that a second officer, Policeman Schroeder, had to help.   They finally handcuffed him, but “He broke the nippers which Policeman Schroeder had on him and kicked the officer a fearful blow in the chest.”

It took three officers had to control Becker at the police station until an ambulance from Bellevue Hospital arrived and he was put in a strait jacket.  “He was placed in the insane pavilion at Bellevue this forenoon,” advised The Evening World.

The 54th Regiment Veteran’s Organization used the assembly hall as its headquarters.  The group was formed at the outbreak of the Civil War by German immigrants and was known popularly as Die Schwarzen Jaeger.  The New York Times later said the regiment “served with distinction throughout the campaign.”  When Captain Carl Gerhard Friedrich Wahle died on April 21, 1899, a military funeral was held in the assembly rooms in Eckstein’s building.

On June 15, 1903 Victor Eckstein sold his building to George Ehret.  The real estate operator soon commissioned architects Horenburger & Straub to make alterations; updating the 13-year old structure.

The spiral fire escape was veiled in a basket weave tube -- photo by Alice Lum
Under its new owner the building continued to attract labor unions and political groups.  On April 10, 1904 the newly-organized New York Rent Protective Association went “seeking a hall for their meeting, and finally found one at 62 East Fourth Street,” reported The Times.   In 1912 when 7,000 furrier workers went on strike, they reported here—the meeting rooms now known as Astoria Hall.

It was around this time that the United Cloth Hat and Cap Makers of North America took permanent space in the building.  Organized in 1901, the union would operate its general offices here for years.

By 1914 Astoria Hall had been converted to a theater and music hall.  When a 19-year old actor with one leg was arrested on May 13 for soliciting alms on 14th Street, he grumbled at being detained.  Jesse Skinner was well-dressed and wore a “ring in which three diamonds sparkled...Skinner said he was very much annoyed by his arrest,” reported The Sun, “declaring he was due at Astoria Hall to rehearse his act, which he said was called ‘The Floppers.’”

Still, stage sketches and music would often stand aside for more serious events at Astoria Hall.  In September of 1915 8,000 ladies’ tailors went on strike, crippling not only the dress factories in the garment area; but “all the expensive tailor shops and dressmaking establishments adjacent to Fifth Avenue,” according to The Evening World on September 22.  The newspaper said that all strikers below 14th Street were meeting at Astoria Hall.

On January 9, 1917 the Umbrella Workers’ Union protested to President Wilson against the importation of Japanese umbrellas.  “The union also intends to begin a fight for the eight-hour work day,” advised The Evening World a week earlier.  Union organizer Meyer Abrahamson told reporters “a call has gone out to 25,000 members, mostly girls, for a meeting at Astoria Hall.’

When George Ehret hired architect L. F. J. Welher to do $8,500 worth of alterations to the building in 1918, there was still a restaurant on the first floor.  And for the next few years labor unions would continue to use the upstairs rooms.   In 1918 30,000 workers of the American Men’s and Boys’ Clothing Manufacturers Association were locked out by their employers.  The group held conferences in Astoria Hall on November 12.  The following year it was the International Federation of Lunchroom and Restaurant Employees which held its “mass meeting” here.  (The union complained its members’ 84-hour work weeks earned them $16.)

Among Ehret’s alterations was the conversion of Victor Eckstein’s living space on the fifth floor to additional meeting rooms.  But in 1921 the meetings there were of the shady variety.

“Chicago” was the password that admitted patrons to the illegal gaming hall.  Gamblers staked as much as $300 on a single throw at the craps tables and undercover detectives said they lost $51 within 20 minutes of play—about $625 today.

The patrons’ luck ran out on February 3 when the rooms were raiding and 23 men were arrested.  The New-York Tribune reported “Eighteen of the men were fined $2 each.  Five, charged with being common gamblers, will be arraigned in the Tombs Court to-day.”

In 1956 No. 62 East Fourth Street became the 125-seat Royal Playhouse where live theater and dance was staged for nearly a decade.  Matinees were for children who were treated to live stage performances like “Cinderella.”

Then, on January 21, 1962, The New York Times reported “the other day there was J. I. Rodale announcing that he had purchased the three-story building at 62 East Fourth Street and would turn it into an intimate playhouse, a workshop, and an acting school.”  The Rodale Theater, like the Royal, survived just short of ten years.

While Rodale still owned the venue, beginning in July 1966 through the early 70s, it was concurrently used by the Channel One Video Theater for its “Channel One Underground Television.”  As part of the show, the audience watched black and white television sets that hung from the ceiling.  Called “The Grove Tube” show, it would form the basis for the 1974 movie of the same name.

Biographer Rena Fruchter, in her I’m Chevy Chase…and You’re Not, writes “It was here that Chevy laid the groundwork that took him eventually to Saturday Night Live.”  She quotes an article from the Village Voice “The studio is on the second floor of the building, in what must have been an elegant ballroom.  It is a huge room with grimy gilt trim, dirty crystal chandeliers and faded wall panel paintings.”

It was not only the interiors that had become grimy.  The neglected façade peeled paint and numerous windows were boarded closed.

In the late '70s the deterioration of the building had only just begun -- photograph by Edmund V. Gillon, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Much is currently made of Andy Warhol’s Fortune Theater which briefly made use of the space in 1971.  Widely touted as the artist’s foray into male porn; there is little evidence that no more than a single male “blue film”, entitled Male Magazine, was ever screened here.

The building was home to the New York Theater Ensemble from the early 1970s through 1984, when it became the New Theater from 1985 to 1989.  In 1990 the DUO Theater, a group specializing in Latino music was here and by 2000 it shared the building with the Rod Rodgers Dance Company Studios, which leased the basement and first floor.

In 2000 a massive half-million dollar project was undertaken to restore the building and rebuild the interiors.  The result, completed in 2012, earned the Duo Multicultural Arts Center the Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award, issued by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
The "faded wall paintings" and surviving architectural details were carefully restored -- photo

The building houses space for dance, visual art, theater, film and music.  Nearly derelict in the 1990s, the quirky structure with its disguised spiral fire escape (no longer usable by law) has reemerged as an unexpected architectural gem.

photo by Alice Lum

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