Saturday, October 31, 2015

Odd Fellows' Hall -- Grand and Centre Streets

photo by Jim Henderson
 On June 7, 1847 the New-York Daily Tribune reported on the laying of the cornerstone of the new lodge building for the Right Worthy Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows’ which had taken place two days earlier.  According to the newspaper, the procession (of about 5,000 participants) and ceremonies were “as gorgeous and impressive as ever transpired in this City.”

After “remarks appropriate to the occasion” were made by several officials, “deposits” were made into the cornerstone.  Included was “the name of the architect of the Odd Fellows’ Hall, Joseph French,” said the Tribune.  If, indeed, the report was accurate, both architect and his partner had reason to be insulted.

Joseph Trench, not “French,” had taken John Butler Snook into his practice a few years earlier.  Modern architectural historians credit Snook as having major input in the design of Odd Fellows’ Hall; but he was snubbed by the Odd Fellows’ who ignored his participation in the paperwork within the cornerstone.

Nearly a year later, on March 1, 1848, a New-York Daily Tribune reporter was back to investigate the progress.  “It is really a magnificent edifice, an ornament to the City—chaste, elegant and well-proportioned—front Centre-st. 77 feet, on which is the main entrance, 71 feet on Grand-st. and 105 on Orange-st.,” the newspaper reported the following day.

By now the exterior of the structure was nearly completed.  The Tribune reported ”The fronts are of Connecticut polished brown sandstone, and of superior workmanship—the first story is faced with rusticated ashlar, and the others with plain ashlar.”  The newspaper once again ignored any participation by Snook, while getting his partner’s name right this time.  “The architect is Joseph Trench of Chambers-st.”

No matter whether Trench worked alone or with Snook, the structure was indeed impressive.  Four stories tall, each elevation featured three-story fluted pilasters that supported a classical triangular pediment.  The rusticated first floor was designed to accommodate 19 commercial spaces which would provide rental income.  Above the roofline was a drum and shallow dome that rose 98 feet from the sidewalk.

Well dressed citizens and handsome carriages pass the Odd Fellows' Hall in 1866 -- Miller's Stranger's Guide for the City of New York With Map 1866 (copyright expired)

Visitors entering on Grand Street were met by a grand staircase 12 feet wide leading to the Hall.  The second floor included five Committee rooms, offices, the library, a reading room, and the Order’s post office.   On the third floor were three immense Lodge rooms and on the fourth there were two.  Also on the fourth floor was “a suite of Encampment rooms, which are to be fitted up in a very superior style for that branch of the order,” reported the Tribune.  “The main one is an elliptical saloon 40 by 33 feet.”  

The newspaper described the “attic” or fifth floor, saying it “is to be occupied with a Rotunda 13 feet in diameter and 25 in height at the apex or center of the ceiling.  The Rotunda will be reserved for the grand bodies, and have two Committee rooms, an Ante-room and an Outer room.”  The Grand Lodge-room, or Rotunda, will be elegantly lighted and ventilated from the dome, and from sixteen windows around the body of the room.  It will hold 1,200 persons.”

The New-York Daily Tribune estimated the cost at completion at $100,000—about $3 million in 2015.

The Odd Fellows’ Hall Association had been incorporated in April 1844 with, according to the New-York Daily Tribune, “the object being to provide premises for a library and reading rooms, apartments for natural history, science and the arts, school, lecture and meeting rooms, and to provide for the education of orphans.”   King’s Handbook of New York City described the purpose of the group in more altruistic terms.  “To visit the Sick, Relieve the Distressed, to Bury the Dead, and to Educate the Orphan.”

Members donated to a fund which could be drawn upon when a member or one of his family became sick or died, or to help widows and orphaned children of members.  The Journal of Commerce brutally berated the concept in 1848.  “For individuals to form a common purse by a general contribution upon the condition that they shall draw from the fund when sick, and their families if necessitated, after their decease, is a very direct way to make men live sick and die poor.  Upon this plan the industrious will always make the fund and the lazy spend it.”

The Odd Fellows’’ Hall was completed in 1849 at a final cost of $125,000.  It was dedicated on June 4, 1849 after a massive procession from Hudson Street.  Later that night, at 8:00, the Evening Exercises took place in Castle Garden.  Members paid 50 cents for tickets.  The New-York Daily Tribune advised “At the termination of the above exercises the floor will be cleared, and the band will be at the service of such as desire to conclude the festivities with dancing.”

The neighborhood around Odd Fellows' Hall was romantically depicted by Charles M. Autenreith's watercolor later in the century --from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Several years later the elegant interiors were described by Miller’s Stranger’s Guide for the City of New York in 1866.  “It contains a series of highly ornamented lodge-rooms richly furnished and in different styles of architecture: some Egyptian, Grecian, Elizabethan, &c.”   The period-themes of the Lodge Rooms were suggested by their names:  The Gothic Room, the Corinthian Room, the Antique Room, and the Egyptian Room among them.  These room were routinely used not only for meetings, but for the funerals of members.

Among the commercial spaces of the first floor was Perkins restaurant.  Owned by a Lodge member, James H. Perkins and his brother, it was a favorite venue for lodge dinners.  On December 3, 1850 the New-York Daily Tribune reported on the anniversary celebration for Lodge 355 here.  “The attendance--especially of the fair—was all that could be wished by the members of ‘Constitution,’ or by Brothers P. and all went ‘merry as a marriage bell.”

A Perkins Restaurant advertisement from about 1849 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The restaurant was, of course, not hired only by Lodge members.  On Christmas Day that same year the Bruce Guards hosted a dinner here.  “This company of citizen soldiers paraded in fine style yesterday,” said the New-York Daily Tribune on December 26.  They dined at Perkins’s (Odd Fellows’ Hall), where they could not fail to enjoy themselves well.”

Another of the private spaces was leased by the New-York Liquor Dealers’ Society in the 1850s.  Rather ironically, on June 15, 1855, The New York Times heavily covered the Convention of Temperance Delegates; and on the same page it mentioned the Liquor Dealers’ Society having “their head-quarters at Odd Fellows’’ Hall, corner of Centre and Grand-streets, where the books of the Society are kept open every day, for the enrollment of names and the delivery of cards…None but members of the Society are permitted to be present at its meeting.”

On December 2, 1857 patrons of the restaurant were horribly frightened when an explosion occurred below the building.  Someone had carried a lighted candle near an open gas jet between 1:00 and 2:00 that afternoon.  The explosion that followed was powerful.

The New York Times reported “The loudness of the report caused a considerable apprehension for a time in the vicinity, and rumors prevailed that several had been killed and a large number wounded.”  No one was hurt, but the restaurant was damaged and patrons dodged falling plaster.   “Fortunately the only result of the explosion was the dislodgment of the restaurant fixtures, and the tearing of the plastering from the ceiling.”

By 1862 the restaurant was being operated by Dorset & Brown.  Next door was the clothing store of William Grant.  As had happened five years earlier, an open flame caused problems in the cellar below Dorset & Brown’s restaurant on October 13, 1862.

Around 5:30 that afternoon Brown headed to the basement “for the purpose of letting water out of the gas pipes,” according to The New York Times the following day.  He carried a lighted lamp and just as he neared a kerosene container, he stepped on a stick.  The stick flew up, struck his lamp, and “and then the ignition immediately took place.”

The resulting blaze filled the restaurant with dense smoke and flames which “made considerable headway before they could be extinguished.”  The Odd Fellows’ Hall suffered $2,500 in damages; the restaurant $6,000 and William Grant’s clothing store about $300.

In the meantime, the Odd Fellows’ Hall leased space to various organizations for meetings, presentations, and other events.  In 1869, for instance, the Williams Literary Union held its monthly meetings here.

In 1881 it was evident that the majority of the members were willing to leave the changing neighborhood.  But not all of them.  Just as the building came up for auction on March 15, 1881, one member stepped in.

The New York Times reported the following day “Odd-fellows’ Hall…would have been sold yesterday by auction if an injunction obtained by Mr. Robert E. Dunham, one of the stockholders of the association that owns the building and land, had not prevented the sale.  Mr. Dunham complains that the Directors of the association did not take the advice of the stockholders before determining upon the sale, and he considers that they should have done so.”

Dunhan was eventually out-voted and the elegant building was sold to Robert Hoe, one of the principals of the printing firm R. Hoe & Company.  Hoe commissioned architect John Buckingham to convert the structure for factory purposes.  The grand interiors were gutted and the “Rotunda” and dome removed.  In their place a two-story mansard, having nothing to do with the architecture below, was conspicuously added rather hat-like, which resulted in the loss of the pediments.

The neighborhood continued to change—becoming part of the Italian District at the turn of the century and then engulfed by Chinatown.  Throughout the 20th century the old Odd Fellows’ Hall saw the comings and goings of a myriad of small businesses, while at the same time somehow avoiding drastic change to the façade.  The building was given landmark designation in 1982—a move that stopped planned alterations by Bijan Nassi who purchased the property in 1997.  The antiques dealer hoped to convert the building into restaurant and office spaces, but was unable to meet the Landmarks Preservation Commission requirements.

Photographer Edmund V. Gillon captured the care-worn structure in the 1970s.  from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Despite Buckingham’s insensitive 1881 alterations; the old Odd Fellows’ Hall remains an imposing and impressive presence on Grand Street.  It is a remarkable surviving example of private institutional buildings of pre-Civil War Manhattan.

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