Monday, September 10, 2012

The Lost 1866 Terrace Garden -- 58th Street near Lexington Ave.

The concert hall at Terrace Garden was known as the Lexington Opera House -- NYPL Collection
In 1866 the concept of the “pleasure garden” was firmly rooted in New York.   As early as 1767 Samuel Fraunces, the proprietor of Fraunces Tavern, had opened the Vauxhall Gardens.   Pleasure gardens were normally a combination of theater, refreshments and entertainment that mixed indoor activities with open-air gardens.

On June 27, 1858 the New York Herald predicted that the new Palace Garden would be the end-all of pleasure gardens.  The newspaper called it the “most beautiful, the most attractive, and in all probability the last great garden that individual enterprise will be enacted to devote to the health, pleasure and recreation of the citizens of New York.”

The Herald was wrong.

By now the German population of New York City was substantial and the Lower East Side teemed with German music halls and social clubs.  What was needed, thought John Koch, was a pleasure garden.

Koch purchased land far north of the congested Kleindeutschland neighborhood, on East 58th Street, where the open air was as yet unspoiled by development.  The wide lot, which sat between Lexington and 3rd Avenues, stretched through to East 59th Street.

The handsome brick and stone structure rose five stories and reminded New Yorkers that the Germans made up an important component of the city’s population.  Called the Terrace Gardens, the complex included a concert hall, ballroom, banquet rooms and meeting rooms, an attached hotel and, of course, the beautifully-planted gardens.

By the opening of the following season Philipp Bernet had taken over the Terrace Garden as proprietor.  He continued the highly popular outdoor concerts by Theodore Thomas’s orchestra which The New York Times would later pronounce “the most proficient orchestra in the country.”

On June 3, 1867 Bernet placed an advertisement in The New York Tribune announcing “The success attending the experimental Concerts given last Summer at Terrace Garden, has induced Mr. Theo. Thomas to resume, on a firm basis and larger scale, these refined and extremely popular out-door entertainments.”

The concerts were performed every night except Saturday and with a $10 season ticket (about $136 today) patrons could attend all of them throughout the three-month season.   Bernet promised that “Efforts are making to increase in every possible way the attractive features of these Soirees.  Several new Virtuosi will be introduced early in the season, and many important additions will be made to the already comprehensive repertoire of Mr. Thomas’s efficient Orchestra.”

The advertisement hoped to introduce a wide audience to the still-new venue.  “The Garden will be conducted upon the most liberal principles, which it is hoped will commend it to the distinguished society frequenting its Arbors, Refreshment Pavilions, and the adjoining Hotel.”

Unlike the German social halls which were essentially German-only; the Terrace Garden welcomed everyone.  Other ethnic and political organizations rented the venues and the concerts, operas and plays were attended by general audiences.  In 1884, for instance, a Franco-Jewish group, the Social Society of the Communaute Israelite Francaise leased the space for its amateur performances.

As the turn of the century approached, the vaudeville and minstrel shows were common fare -- NYPL Collection
The Terrace Garden and its interior theater, called the Lexington Opera House, quickly became one of the premier entertainment and gathering spots.   The theater offered German opera, concerts, and later added minstrel and vaudeville shows.  A more formal and dignified event occurred in 1888, however, when the Garden was visited by the aunt of the Emperor of German, the Princess of Schleswig-Holstein and her husband. 

On August 27 the princess, dressed entirely in black, arrived at the Terrace Garden with her husband Dr. Friedrich von Esmarch, one of the world's greatest authorities on military surgery.   The reception room was draped in American and German flags and after brief ceremonies and speeches, the princess presented 1,200 marks for distribution among the indigent immigrants from Schleswig-Holstein.

The New York Times parenthetically remarked that “The royal blood that flows in the veins of the Princess is the great element of interest to the romantic story of her marriage.  She…is well mated to her handsome husband, whose high forehead, fine features, and snow white hair and beard would make him a prominent figure anywhere.”

Things quickly returned to normal and the following Summer The Times was commenting on the opening of the musical season.  Inside German opera was staged.  “It would be difficult to find a place where Summer theatricals exist under better conditions for physical comfort that at Terrace Garden, where 'Die Fledermaus' was presented last night enjoyable as regards the company, the orchestra, and the surroundings,” said the reviewer.

The audience slipped in and out of the theater to enjoy the night air and the music outside, as well.  “A peculiarity of the performances at Terrace Garden,” continued the article, “is that a concert is given on the same evening in the garden adjoining the theatre, but so as not to conflict with the operetta.  For instance, last night four numbers of selected music were played by the orchestra before the stage performance began, two after the first act, two after the second, and three after the operetta was finished.  The result was that one style of entertainment relieved the other and the audience was constantly changing form the garden to the theatre or vice versa.”

By the end of the 1893 season the Civil War-era complex was in need of modernization.   The venue was enlarged to 59th Street, the interiors updated and new attractions were added.  On June 5, 1894 The New York Times reported “Terrace Garden has undergone a wonderful transformation since last season.”  The reporter said that the interiors “have been decorated sumptuously and in thorough good taste.  The buildings, including music hall, bowling alleys, Summer garden, and ‘bierstube,’ are in thorough harmony.  No pleasanter place for an evening’s entertainment exists in the city.”

Nathan Franko and his orchestra, equally popular and famous as the earlier Theodore Thomas’s, now played in the garden.   The Times reported on the vaudeville performances of the night before.

“The two chief features of the evening were the performances of Miss Annie Hart, the ‘Bowery Girl,’ with her songs and delineations, and Miss Dorothy Daffron, in serpentine, butterfly and other dances.”  The critic lamented the lack of sufficient rehearsal, however.  “Dorothy Daffron was not at her best, because the leader of the orchestra was not sufficiently familiar with her dances.  The other features of the programme were performed in a manner which was entirely satisfactory.”

An 1898 souvenir card depicted the up-to-date "ladies' parlor"
Through the turn of the century the Terrace Garden remained one of New York’s most popular destinations.  Restaurateur Adolph Suesskind became proprietor in 1901.  The Times later remembered that “the food he offered was so good that his receipts quickly mounted and…he was able to buy Terrace Garden.”

The mostly-German Brew Masters Association held its convention here for three days in 1899 -- NYPL Collection
But on the evening of September 29, 1904 the place was nearly destroyed by a mob of reveling college boys.  The freshman class of Columbia University was staging its vaudeville entertainment here and someone had the idea that kidnapping 16 sophomores as part of the festivities would be a good idea.   The boys were bound and gagged and then, according to The Times, “Singing and howling a college song, the 200 and more freshmen lugged the sophomores up to the dance hall, slid them across it on their backs, and slammed them into a little closet that just held the prisoners.”

In 1906 the New York Prison Keepers Organization held its banquet here -- photo
The sophomore class did not find the prank to be as funny as the freshmen did.  “Then 300 sophomores attacked the hall, forced an entrance, and beat the 200 freshmen till the reserves of the East Fifty-first and East Sixty-seventh Street Police Stations put an end to the pummeling.  Clothing was torn galore, hats smashed a-plenty, and noses bled merrily, but the police wouldn’t make any arrests.”

The article continued “The hall was well wrecked, and the diners and drinkers in the Garden were kept in a state of excitement while the fighting lasted.  A crowd of thousands of people gathered to see what the matter was.”
A 1905 postcard view of the gardens shows the orchestra area at the rear.
With war raging in Europe on September 27, 1914, 10,000 German Americans crowded into the building to raise funds for the aid of widows and children of German and Austrian soldiers and to support the fatherland.   The event was conducted by the United German Societies of New York.  The speakers denounced France and England and urged America’s alliance with Germany.

Congressman Richard Bartholdt said “The populace of the United States seems to have forgotten that Germany was almost the only country which showed a friendly attitude toward the United States during the civil war.  Lincoln sent his emissaries with bonds to sell, but at Paris and London they were turned away…It there any reason for America to stick to the worst enemy of Germany in this struggle?”

America did not ally with Germany, of course, and the fate of the Terrace Garden was threatened.  A year after the massive assembly The Times reported that Adolph Suesskind was in serious financial trouble.  “Terrace Garden…a famous place for German balls and parties, has not been able to weather the European war,” it said. 

Suesskind’s attorney, Nathan Vidaver, explained that the Garden’s popularity with French, German and English groups for their lodge meetings and entertainments was its downfall.  “Naturally, after the war began some of the French societies withdrew their patronage and the Germans didn’t feel like holding their usual festivities.  The result of course has been a gradual shrinkage of the concern’s business.”

Creditors continued operating the Garden and it struggled on.  On April 16, 1917 a benefit for the American Red Cross was held here, with 5,000 tickets sold to see “real, live movie stars,” according to The Times.  “The grand march will be led by Roscoe Arbuckle, Virginia Pearson, and Leah Baird,” the newspaper said.    The New York City Police Department leased a large meeting room to examine prospective police officers that year and the Gershwin brothers, Ira, George and Harry were here on May 6 to see their sister’s school recital.  During the program Frankie sang “M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I” and joined a classmate in a duet of “So Long, Letty.”

As the 1920s roared in, the Terrace Garden continued is tradition of multi-ethnic entertainment with Fletcher Henderson’s black dance orchestra playing alongside an all-white ensemble.  But although the Garden had remarkably adapted to changing times, the days of the pleasure garden were over.  Prohibition dealt the last, deadly blow.

In September 1926 the American Laboratory Theatre converted the building into a theater and workshop to stage its productions.  The organization announced that the title of its opening production of Stephen Vincent Benet’s play “Americana” had been changed to “Hill Billy Boy.”

But the endeavor was unsuccessful.  Within a year the Terrace Garden—once among the most glittering entertainment spots in the city—was gone.   And within only a few decades, it was totally forgotten.

A starkly-modern structure stands on the site of the Terrace Garden --photo by Alice Lum


  1. Thank you, very interesting history and documents!

  2. My Great-Great Grandfather and his family owned the Terrace Garden back in the late 1890's. Thanks for the pictures and story!

  3. This is great. My cousin found a B&W post card(?) amongst his moms memorabilia from the Terrace Garden opening of their Summer Season May 25, 1907 featuring the "Famous Marguerita Orchestra". Thank you for the history!