In the last half of the 19th Century 23rd Street was the theatre district of Manhattan – opera houses, music halls, theatres and vaudeville houses lined the street from 5th to 8th Avenue. At the northwest corner of 23rd Street and 6th Avenue was Bryant’s Opera House – the home of the highly elaborate and popular minstrel troupe, Bryant’s Minstrels, perhaps most remembered for premiering the song “Dixie” and other Stephen Foster songs. When it was put up for sale in 1878, German-born Albert Bial and John Koster, who ran German-style concert hall and beer garden next door, took it over.
|The concert hall of Koster & Bial's -- photo NYPL Collection|
The newly-named “Koster and Bial’s Music Hall” included a closed 1200-seat vaudeville theatre and open-air beer garden. Because there was a law against selling alcohol in a theatre, the stage curtain was removed and a folding screen put in its place. And with that the music hall became a restaurant offering entertainment rather than a theatre offering food and drink.
Moses King, in his 1892 Handbook of New York City referred to Koster and Bial’s as “high-class” and said that the “entertainments are of the vaudeville or variety order, like those given at the Alhambra in London and the Eldorado in Paris, with a burlesque to lead the programme…”
The saloon was dubbed “The Corner” and an exuberant metal cornice proclaimed the name as well as KOSTER & BIAL. On the 2nd floor corner of the building brownstone plaques carved with whimsical late Victorian lettering reading “The Corner,” doubled as street signs. Patrons entered through an ornate entrance of cast iron, stained glass and polished wood. The music hall and the saloon were joined so theatre-goers could enter either through the main entrance at 23rd Street or through The Corner building.
|The original corner entryway can be seen in this 1892 print -- NYPL Collection|
Trouble started when Koster and Bial offered more than food, drink and vaudeville. They also offered gentlemen patrons the paid favors of women. The New York Times, in a 1902 article reminiscing about former theatres, remarked “While Koster & Bial were in Twenty-third Street the notorious 'cork room' existed in their theatre. The walls of this room were covered with stoppers from champagne bottles, and the affairs that took place in the room in the late hours after show time would have astonished the churchgoers. In fact, what happened in the 'cork room' did finally become so well known that the affairs had to be stopped.”
|The "Sitting Room" at The Corner in 1892 -- NYPL Collection|
A year later Josiah Belden took over “The Corner,” running a billiards parlor and grocery on the first floor and “lodge rooms” above.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani shut down Billy’s Topless in 2001 as part of his quality of life initiatives.
The Corner stands relatively unnoticed today; however the floors above street level, including the marvelous cornice and wonderful brownstone street markers, are in a remarkable state of preservation.