Monday, August 20, 2012

The Lost Arion Society --- Park Avenue and 59th Street

The building in 1889 -- The American Architect & Building News (copyright expired)
Ground was broken in March 1886 and an appropriate musical ceremony marked the laying of the cornerstone on June 12.  Although the original cost of the building was estimated at $200,000, that figure quickly grew.  Amendments were made to make the structure fireproof throughout and unforeseen problems in sinking the foundations brought the final cost to around $350,000. 

Bronze sculptural groupings perch atop the stone balustrade -- photo NYPL Collection
The building, completed in September of the next year, was sumptuous.   Clad in buff brick and terra cotta, it sat upon a rusticated base of Berea sandstone.    Called by the architects “early Italian renaissance,” it featured stone balconies on hefty scrolled brackets, arched windows and, above the stone balustrade along the roofline, two sculptural groupings.   Above the Park Avenue fa├žade sat Arion on the back of a dolphin—plucked from the mythical story of his being rescued from pirates by a group of dolphins—designed by Aloys Loher.  The grouping above 59th Street depicted Prince Carnival dancing with two female figures; this sculpture designed by Henry Baerer.   The two sculptures cost the society $18,000.

The Review of the New York Musical Season said “The general appearance of the building is chaste and elegant, the facades being relieved by handsome balconies, and the ornamental designs in terra cotta being consistent in style with the architectural forms.”
The Cafe showcased a heavy wooden bar and stained glass windows -- photograph Library of Congress
Inside  Guastavino-tiled arches created vast spaces.  The Review of the New York Musical Season noted that “A unique feature in the construction of the building is the use of the so-called Spanish arch in the floors, the span being sometimes twenty feet. The arch was never before used in a large public building in America.”  Guastavino’s tiled construction was guaranteed fireproof, as were the iron and marble staircases and the French flint tiles that paved the hallways.

The Entrance Hall -- photo The New York Tribune 1902, copyright expired
The impressive first floor with its heavy, fluted columns and staircase contained the reading room, two family dining rooms, card rooms and the committee room.   On this level, as well, were the billiard room with six tables and a bar, a wine room, and the library which adjoined a private dining room.

The Music Room -- photo New York Tribune 1902 copyright expired

Below street level was the drinking room, or Kneipe, that imitated a medieval German beer hall.  Heavy oak furniture and wainscoting, stained glass windows and wrought iron lighting added to the old German atmosphere.  Also in the basement were two bowling alleys, hat rooms, and “toilet rooms.”

The Rathskeller -- photo New York Tribune 1902 copyright expired
On the second floor was a 51 by 95-foot banquet hall capable of seating 500, along with the kitchen and pantries.  The ladies’ parlors and toilet rooms were situated on a mezzanine and were, according to The New York Times, “sumptuously decorated and furnished.”   Above, on the third floor, was the immense concert hall and ballroom.  By using iron roof trusses, the architects were able to avoid using columns in the 120-foot long hall which would obstruct both dancing and views of the stage.   “Three large chandeliers hang from the ceiling, adding greatly to its striking appearance," said the newspaper.
No expense was spared in outfitting the building with the latest in technology and conveniences.  An electric elevator ran from the basement to the top floor; there were electric lights throughout (although given the unreliability of electric lighting in 1887, gas lamps were also at the ready), and over $14,000 was spent on an up-to-the-minute ventilation system.

On September 17, 1887 the clubhouse was formally opened.    The New York Times, in exuberant prose, reported.  “At an early hour in the evening the exercises opened with a procession and illumination, and from then on the joys of celebration were sustained with that overflowing goodness of heart and unflagging energy which characterizes an assemblage of German citizens alive to the fact that the occasion is worthy of all possible honor.”

At 7:30 the procession began, marching through several streets and consisting of representatives from many of the German social clubs; all wearing uniforms and carrying banners.  The parade arrived at the new clubhouse which was brilliantly illuminated by a dozen calcium lamps.  On the roof, pitch fires burned from braziers, fireworks were exploded and in the empty lot next door a cannon was fired.

Walking along in the procession was “a handsome page,” said The Times, who bore the key to the new building.   The boy presented the key to the John O. Hundt, chairman of the building committee who declared the building “open to harmony, music, and many other good things which are dear to the German heart.”    The Times reported “Then clubhouse was then invaded.  In an instant its many rooms were occupied by swarms of delighted sightseers who exchanged freely expressions of surprise and pleasure at the succession of fair scenes which opened to their view as they passed from floor to floor of the building.”

As would be expected, the main events of the evening took place in the concert hall.   The Arion Society’s conductor, Franz van der Stucken (who had been lured from Germany specifically for the position) had composed a march for the occasion.  Singers entertained the large group and President Richard Katzenmayer addressed the crowd, saying he would like to see the words “Here German is spoken” written “in letters of fire over the entrances.”  After his speech, four great barrels of beer were tapped.

The Arion Society continued to prosper and by 1893 had a membership of over 2,000.  The society’s ball at Madison Square Garden in 1895 was nearly a financial disaster.   The events were elaborate affairs and the staging of this one cost the society $19,500.  Tickets were sold at the extraordinary price of $10 each, which should have netted the club between $8,000 and $9,000.   But ticket counterfeiters showed up on the evening of the ball, boldly selling the fakes in front of the Garden.

By the time the ruse was discovered 400 people had been admitted with counterfeit tickets, a gate loss of $4,000.  Three hundred additional patrons showed up with fake tickets and were turned away, adding another $3,000 to the lost revenue.  In the end the Arion Society’s grand ball netted the club only about $2,000.

In September 1895 The Arion Society was invited to sing at the White House and the Capitol Building.  Although singing for the President in the East Room was memorable, club members were most impressed by the acoustics of the Capitol Rotunda.  The Times reported that “Members of the society say that the echoes heard in the rotunda were second only to those of the Luray Caverns, which they visited yesterday.”

Tragedy struck on March 11, 1901 when the assistant engineer, Anton Zier, accidentally turned a stop cock on a boiler around 4 a.m., releasing a burst of steam and boiling water.  The force of the steam was enough to blow apart the large coal pile across the room.  Zier was hit with the stream of boiling water and he inhaled the scalding steam.  The severely injured man, concerned that the boilers would explode, made his way up the ladder to street level, then crawled three blocks to the Liederkranz Club.  He begged the engineer there, Charles Ziebig, to hurry to the Arion Society to repair the damage.

Policeman Carolan rushed Zier to the German Hospital while Ziebig went to the Arion.  The boiler room was filled with steam, but he was able to shut down the boilers before any severe damage resulted.

Sadly, Zier, who had a wife and five children, did not survive the serious burns.

A year later the club had, perhaps, its most memorable moment.  On February 26 Prince Henry of Germany was the guest of a reception here.  Accompanying the Prince, who was the brother of the Emperor,  were high-level figures like German ambassador Baron von Holleben, Vice Admiral von Tirpitz, Admiral von Baudissin, Admiral Evans, Adjutant General Corbin, Colonel Bingham, Commander Cowles, and Assistant Secretary of State David J. Hill.

The Prince’s counsel to the Arion members would be hauntingly remembered only a few years later.  “If I were to give any advice to you, which I know is not necessary, I could give non better than this, that every German that has become a citizen of the United States should be as loyal and good a citizen as he would be had he remained in Germany.”

The clubhouse was heavily decorated for the Prince’s visit.  The New York Tribune said “The lower floor of the clubhouse and the stairways looked like an immense greenhouse, with their multitude of rare plants, ferns and palm trees, while evergreens covered the walls.  Upstairs the main hall was decorated with evergreens, smilax, and American Beauty roses, and the walls and ceiling were covered with small electric lights.”  The Times agreed, saying “The interior of the Arion Clubhouse…was a veritable conservatory.”

In preparation for the Prince's visit, the building was festooned with the U.S. and German flags, bunting, pennants and other decorations -- New York Tribune February 27, 1902 (copyright expired)
Through the first decade of the century the Arion Society became as much identified with billiards as with singing its Interstate Challenge Cup, valued at $250, was highly sought in annual amateur billiards tournaments.

But things were about to change for the Arion Society.

With Germany embroiled in the horrific war that darkened Europe, German American representatives crowded into the Arion clubhouse on February 4, 1917.  The purpose of the meeting was to assure the world that, despite their German origins, they were solidly American.  A telegram was sent to the President saying that, while no one wanted war, if war should come “we of fighting age, our sons and brothers, will be loyal.”

New York newspapers hailed the move.  But within a month or so public opinion would shift.  In March The Mayor’s Committee on National Defense circulated a “pledge of loyalty to President Wilson” among the German societies.   Members of the Arion Society refused to sign the pledge saying “we regard the invitation to sign as a doubt of our loyalty and therefore an insult.”  The blank pledges were removed from the club’s foyer.

Public sentiment worsened when a month later the conductor of the Brooklyn branch of the Arion Society refused to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” during a concert of classical music.   In response to the uproar that resulted, he said “I am an American and have no desire to cast aspersions on our national anthem, but as a musical composition I contend that it is decidedly unclassical and did not fit in with the programme we were presenting.”

It was the end of the line for the Arion Society.   Within weeks the beautiful clubhouse was sold to brewer George Ehret who began discussions with the Anderson Galleries to convert it to an art gallery.  On June 22, 1917 The New York Times reported that “All of the interior furnishings and properties, including books, pictures, statuary, furniture, hangings and even chandeliers, of the clubhouse of the Arion Society…will be sold at public auction next Tuesday.  The rooms will be completely dismantled.

“Among the articles to be sold is a large oil painting by A. Liezer-Mayer representing Philippine Welser before Kaiser Ferdinand I, which, it was said yesterday, originally cost $35,000.  It will be offered at an upset price of $5,000.  A collection of handsomely bound books by standard German authors will also be disposed of.”

The next month the Anderson Galleries announced their planned changes.  New elevators and stairways were installed.  Exhibition rooms replaced the billiards and dining rooms.  The German beer hall in the basement became a catalogue department.  “The new property will be the largest in the United States devoted to the public sale of art and literary collections,” said The Times.

The Gallery opened on December 10, 1917.  On opening day a rare first edition of Shelley’s “Refutation of Deism” with corrections in the poet’s own hand sold for $3,450.   The same day collectors purchased a copy of Boccaccio’s “Decameron” printed in 1620, Ben Jonson’s “Selanus His Fall,” and Christopher Marlowe’s “Massacre of Paris,” among other extremely rare pieces.

In an ironic twist of fate, on May 23, 1920, the Anderson Galleries sold 65 lots of royal furniture and artwork once owned by the Kaiser.  Irreplaceable items of German history—silver cigarette cases, the Kaiser’s favorite drinking jug, and ivory miniatures—were sold to Americans in the former billiard room of a once very German society.

A dispute over rent resulted in the Anderson Galleries being evicted in December 1931 and the building sat essentially empty for over a decade.    Then a surprising announcement was made in September 1945.  Walter Reade purchased the building from the Central Savings Bank for around $600,000.  His intention, he said, was to transform it in a “unique and artistic movie house designed to meet the needs of a subscription clientele.”

Saying that the former Arios clubhouse had been “a dead cat” for fifteen years, he described an intimate theater of about 600 seats for high-end members only.  Instead of the expected movie house seating, he said there would be “two love seats together with an aisle separating every pair of seats.”  There would be no lobby displays or exterior electric signs.

“Patrons will use an old-fashioned door-knocker and will be admitted by a doorman in livery,” he said.  “There will be no change in the exterior walls of the old art gallery building—we’ll just clean up the dirty Indiana limestone and marble, put flowers in the balconnades and flood light the outside.  It will seem as if one is entering Thomas Jefferson’s home.  I have dreams for this theatre.”

Reade spent between $400,000 and $600,000 on renovating the interiors.  The Park Avenue Theatre opened in 1946 for wealthy movie-goers who purchased yearly subscriptions.  The cheapest subscription was $62.40 for a once-a-week 7 p.m. showing.  A seat in the 9 p.m. show cost $93.20.

The theater opened in October 1951 with Alec Guinness starring in “The Lavender Hill Mob.”  Films that premiered here included “Room at the Top,” “The Red Balloon,” and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”

Despite amenities like not having to wait in line, being greeted by a liveried doorman and sitting on cushy loveseats, the plan did not work.  Soon Universal Pictures leased the Park Avenue Theatre and used it to screen the British films of J. Arthur Rank that it distributed in the U.S.

By 1957 the theater was no more and the building housed a bank, an auto salesroom and a dance studio.   That year the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York purchased the property from Walter Reade for over $2 million.   In another astounding reincarnation, the Arion Society clubhouse was now to become a chapel.  The Archdiocese announced on April 3 that it would be used as an annex to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  “Designated as a ‘Chapel of Ease,’ it will conduct religious services for office workers, but normally will not hold baptism or marriage ceremonies,” reported The New York Times.

The Chapel of Saints Faith, Hope and Charity opened late in 1958.  In the structure that had been built by all-male singers, the music here was now performed solely by women.  In yet one more ironic twist, The Chapel Chorale was an all-volunteer, all female choir.

For two decades, in addition to regular worship services, the Chapel would be the scene of funerals for many of New York’s most respected and well-known figures.  Then, in 1978, saying that necessary repairs to the building were “prohibitive in cost,” the Archdiocese relocated the Chapel to the south end of the block.  Real estate developer George Klein told The New York Times “he had decided to acquire the five-story chapel’s site to construct an office building.”

And so he did.   The lovely building with a most remarkable history was razed.  Its four incarnations had supplied New Yorkers with nearly a century of totally separate but equally impressive social experiences.

Today a sleek glass tower soars above the former site of the Arion Society building -- photo by Alice Lum

1 comment:

  1. You mentioned the Brooklyn branch of the Arion Society. That building still exists, on Arion Place in Bushwick. (My sister had her wedding there 40 years ago when the building was known as Arion Manor.) Apparently, the building has been very recently converted to housing. The decline of German-American social institutions in New York and elsewhere, due to the prejudices of WW1, is a sad story.