At a time when most Victorian architects in New York City were vying for prestigious commissions for which they would be long-remembered, Charles Rentz, Jr. toiled away in his office in the German Savings Bank Building designing tenement buildings and middle-class apartment houses in the Lower East Side, along with some factories and stables.
Until 1880 the aspiring architect was listed in the city directory as a beer dealer; however by 1886 his architectural business had grown to the point that he had to move to his roomier office in the bank building. That same year construction began on his most memorial project: Webster Hall.
In July of that year former cigar-manufacturer Charles Goldstein had leased the land at No. 119-123 East 11th Street from Rutherford Stuyvesant for the hefty sum of $2000 a year. Goldman was in the meeting and dance hall business by now, already owning the popular Clinton Garden. He moved quickly to develop his new project. Only a month later the Real Estate Record & Builders Guide mentioned that Rentz was designing “a large ball and concert hall, to be called Webster Hall.”
The Guide went on to describe “a brick front trimmed with brown and Nova Scotia stone and terra cotta. The building will contain a main hall about 40 feet high, also a gallery, private boxes and reception rooms.”
Two months later construction began.
Next door was Saint Ann’s Roman Catholic school and when, in December, the pastor of the church discovered that Goldstein had applied for a liquor license he filed opposition; although to no avail. As the building rose, The New York Times estimated its final cost at $75,000, saying that it was “intended for balls, receptions, Hebrew weddings, and sociables, and not a ballroom.”
|An early sketch of Webster Hall shows the original, complex mansard roof -- NYPL Collection|
A far cry from his tenement structures, Rentz’s Webster Hall was a splashy Queen Ann-style entertainment hall of pressed Philadelphia brick, ornate terra cotta panels and brownstone trim. Huge, decorative cast iron masonry supports embellished the façade between the second and third floors and the whole was topped by two stately mansard caps with elaborate dormers on either side of a steep central mansard tower. In February 1867, just six months after the first spade of earth was removed, Webster Hall was ready for its grand opening.
|Musical instruments, cherubs and masks in terra cotta ornament the facade.|
Construction of the annex began in May and was completed in November. The architect did not attempt to match the original structure, designing a Renaissance Revival building with large arched windows; however the two flowed nicely together.
|Some of the exuberant terra cotta ornamentation is in heavy, deep relief.|
|Webster Hall in 1913. An elaborate entrance canopy stretches to the curb. -- photo International News Service|
Upon Goldstein’s death in 1898 his widow, Annie, lost the Hall to foreclosure in March 1899; however she rapidly regained the leasehold. The non-fire-proof building experienced the first of a series of fires in 1902; although no serious damage was sustained in that fire nor the one that occurred a decade later in 1912.
A year later a fund-raising event for the socialist magazine The Masses initiated an annual masquerade ball that became famous country-wide. And it was here in 1914 that the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America was formed, three years after the tragic Triangle Waist Company fire near Washington Square.
In 1923 the Wand Holding Company purchased the building for $65,000, doing a $220,000 remodeling of the space in 1928.
Then in 1930 fire took its toll on Webster Hall. A “mysterious explosion” resulted in a conflagration that destroyed the two top floors, including the wonderful mansard roof. Damages were estimated at $200,000; almost exactly what the owners had spent on renovations two years earlier.
Repairs were made, without the mansard, and in 1932 Webster Manor, Inc. leased the building at $22,000 a year “for catering, meeting rooms, dance hall and kindred purposes.” Webster Hall became a destination for young couples who danced to big band orchestras throughout the Great Depression years.
Author E. B. White wrote of a 2:00 am visit one morning during that period. “Webster Hall was surrounded by a ring of taxis a mile long. At the door, little groups of gate-crashers slunk about, drunk but hopeful. Inside, the familiar Webster Hall smell came drifting to meet us: sudden illness and old merriment.”
Here the young parents of Martin Scorsese would go dancing, and it was here that Pete Hamill’s parents met.
Once again, in 1938, the Hall was swept by fire. Firemen fought the blaze for three hours before it was extinguished. By then a watchman and a porter were dead and the interior was gutted.
Eleven years later a smoldering cigarette ignited a pile of trash, resulting in a 5-alarm fire that, once again, destroyed the interior and roof.
Refusing to be defeated, Webster Hall again rose from the ashes. RCA Victor Records established a recording studio here from 1953 to 1968. Perry Como, Lena Horne, Stan Getz, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong among others recorded here and Broadway casts assembled here to do cast recordings; among them Mary Martin in Peter Pan, Liza Minelli in Flora, the Red Menace and Julie Andrews in The Boy Friend.
Concerts and meetings continued to be held here throughout the 20th Century, including a 1969 cab driver-owners protest against gypsy cabs. In 1980 the rock club The Ritz established itself in the building and crowds thronged to the hall to hear artists like Madonna, Eric Clapton, Kiss, Sting, Prince, and Tina Turner until it closed in 1989.
|Despite a series of fires, exterior architectural details still remain -- photo by Beyond My Ken|
In his 2004 book, Downtown: my Manhattan, Pete Hamill wrote “On some nights now, I pass Webster Hall, at 125 East Eleventh Street, loud with hip-hop and DJs and crowds of the young. I hope that at least a few frantic young New Yorkers will find one another in the way my parents did. Someday, if they have long lives, they might even ache for the simplicities of Webster Hall.”
non-credited photographs taken by the author