Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The German Odd Fellows' Hall -- No. 69 St. Mark's Place

photo by Alice Lum
While the Independent Order of Odd Fellows enjoyed its comfortable clubhouse that spanned the block of Grand Street between Baxter and Centre streets in the middle of the 19th century, the neighborhood just a few blocks to the north  was filling with German immigrants.   Throughout the Lower East Side area known as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, ethnic social halls quickly rose—often architecturally showy structures where weddings, dances, political meetings and other gatherings were held.   Within their festive rooms food, drink and song offered temporary relief from stifling tenements.

Around the time that the Order of Odd Fellows abandoned their 1848 headquarters to move uptown, the German population planned their own version.   On a single day, Saturday November 28, 1889 reporters scrambled to cover the cornerstone laying of four significant structures: the Jewish Orthodox synagogue at 67th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues; the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. James at 73rd Street and Madison Avenue; the New York Presbyterian Church at Seventh Avenue and 128th Street; and the German Odd Fellow’s Hall at No. 69 St. Mark’s Place.

The German Odd Fellows had been using Eckstein’s Hotel as its headquarters and by the time of the cornerstone laying its new structure was halfway completed.   Around 500 members met at the hotel and marched to the construction site.  The semi-completed building was decorated with flags and flowers and The Mozart Society provided music during the ceremony.  Following the laying of the cornerstone, the 500 men marched back to Eckstein’s for lunch.

The building was completed within the year; a robust pile of yellow brick and stone that sat on a base of rough-cut blocks below a steep stone stoop.  Two elegant cast iron gas lamps lit the steps leading to the arched, double-doored entrance.  The German stone carver’s art was put on full display—spandrel panels, pilaster capitals, circular medallions, and exquisite carved shells above the top floor windows were deftly executed.  An intricate pseudo-balcony with an iron railing at the fourth floor, carved from a single massive chunk of stone, was a masterwork of swirling foliage surrounding a feminine face.

Female faces are incorporated into the pilaster capitals.  An iron railing originally adorned the stone balcony. -- photo by Alice Lum
Above it all an ambitious cornice supported a tiara-like parapet—a balustraded fantasy of pointy finials, ornate volutes, and a central pedimented section displaying the club’s monogram.

Inside were bowling alleys, meeting rooms, and a large ballroom.  The club building was available to private parties and any number of groups—at least 40 “benevolent societies” used it at the time of its opening.  One of the first events in the new structure was the ball of the Russian American National League on December 26, 1890.

The Hall was capped by a fantastic parapet.  Imposing gas lights flank the entrance stairs -- King's Handbook of New York 1892 (copyright expired)
But not everyone was enthusiastic about the new venue.  Next door at No. 67 lived Peter Lyding.   Lyding had been approached by Frederick Hilderbrandt and Richard Zastrow, proprietors of the Hall, when a site was being scouted.   The Sun reported that the men “refused to buy his property at his own price.”

Having priced himself out of the market, a disgruntled Lyding now had to coexist with the social hall next door.   So shortly after the Hall’s opening, he marched off to Judge Patterson.  Lyding's complaint alleged that “the place is a nuisance, because the bowling alleys are kept going late at night, and that music, dancing, and loud and boisterous singing deprive the plaintiff of the enjoyment of his life and property.”

The suit compelled The Sun to run a headline that read “Strong-lunged Singing and Boisterous Bowling in the German Odd Fellows’ Hall.”  Hilderbrandt and Zastrow appeared before the court, insisting that “the alleys were closed at midnight and that the place was respectable.  The ballroom is used solely by private parties and for weddings.”

A week later, on January 20, 1891, the judge reached a decision.  The New York Times reported that “Judge Patterson found the affidavits so conflicting that he was unable to reach the merits of the case.”  He therefore dismissed Lyding’s complaint.  The Times’ own headline was unsympathetic to the frustrated neighbor:  “Lyding Must Stand the Noise.”

Life in the tenements in the 1890s was hard.  Summer heat took its toll on the sick, aged and very young.  The summer of 1894 was especially brutal and as August neared The Evening World passionately encouraged readers to support a seven-year old fund drive to help infants, called the Sick Babies’ Fund.

On August 1, the newspaper reported that “Notwithstanding the sweet north wind that cooled the town, there were 211 deaths yesterday—all children of the tenement-house poor but thirty-seven.”  The newspaper noted that in the past two months 1,000 babies a week were delivered in New York City; 1,111 in the past week.

“A small percentage of these wee lambs arrived via the charity hospitals.  The rest have lodgings in the cheerless, healthless, crowded neighborhoods along the river edge…The poor tots have nothing to live for, and about two hundred of them go back to heaven every week.  It costs just $52 a year to give a baby a living.”

Three little girls of the neighborhood heard about the good work resultant from the Sick Babies’ Fund and resolved to help.  Eleanor Huffensack, Rebecca Kauffman and Minnie Ruff set about to stage a fair to raise money.  They approached the owner of the German Odd Fellows Hall, who donated the space and helped the little girls put on their fair.

Having confirmed the hall, the girls set off to stock it with goods to sell.  “They besieged storekeepers for donations of various things, principally in the edible line,” reported The Evening World, “although there was quite a stock of fancy articles for sale when the doors were opened.

“Lemonade, cake and candy were in great demand, and after the fair closed dancing was indulged in.  Volunteers from the ranks of customers took turns at the piano, and Arthur Perls contributed selections on the violin to aid in the merry-making.”

When the three little girls tallied up their take, they had amassed $18 for the Sick Babies’ Fund—a considerable $450 in today’s money for the youngsters’ efforts.   The Evening World said “Altogether the fair was a great success, socially and financially and those who took part in it are entitled to the thanks of many suffering babies."

A wedding that took place in the Hall a month later was more remarkable than most.   On September 24, 1894 24-year old Samuel J. Reichmann married 22-year old Flora Butzel.  The newlyweds received less attention than their rabbi, however.    Rev. D. Loewenthal, rabbi of the Congregation Banee Scholom, not only married Samuel and Flora that day, but four other couples.

At 4:00 he performed the wedding of Louis Baum and Bertha Lippmann at No. 13 Avenue D.   At 4:45 he was at Lyric Hall on Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street where he married Meyer Rosenberg and Rosa Waxel.  He was then off to the German Odd Fellows Hall for Samuel and Flora’s wedding at 5:30.  The pair had barely said “I do” before the rabbi rushed out the door.   At 6:30 he was at another German social club, Vienna Hall on Lexington Avenue and 58th Street where he married Herman Levy and Minnie Feiber.  Having congratulated the happy couple, he was off to No. 408 East 131st Street where he performed the wedding ceremony of Sigmund Eichholz and Hannah Ormstein.

In the space of three and a half hours Rabbi Loewenthal had officiated in five weddings and, no doubt, went to bed an exhausted man.

A blank slab marks the site of the lost cornice and parapet -- photo by Alice Lum
As the turn of the century came and went, more and more political groups established their homes in the Hall.   The Marine Trades Council met here, as did the Navy Yard Union (which was formed in the Hall), and the Glass Workers Protective Association, another union organization.

Yet social clubs held their own as well.  The German singing group, the Kreutzer Quartet Club, was headquartered here when it vied for the coveted silver statuette of the Minnesinger.  The award was presented by the German Emperor in 1900 “with his compliments to the Northeastern Sangerbund of America,” as reported in the New-York Tribune.  Every year thereafter the bund held a competition of German singing groups for the right to hold the statuette for one year.

The Kreutzer Quarter Club was somewhat disappointed that year.  The judging ended in a tie for first place with the Junger Mannerchor.   The Kreutzer Quarter Club, therefore, could display the silver statue in the German Odd Fellows Hall for only six months.

Henry Huner was employed in the Hall as a porter around that time, but by October 1914, he had moved on—although perhaps not far enough.    On Wednesday morning October 21 the manager opened the Odd Fellows Hall and received a shock.

The New York Times reported “he saw evidence of a feast in the main dining room, empty champagne bottles were on the table which was strewn with soiled napkins, unwashed dishes and remnants of food.  In a chair sat a large skeleton, with a glass of wine in one hand and a napkin spread over the knees.  Near the skeleton was a sign which read: ‘Mr. Bones did it.’”

If Henry Huner and his friend, John Kortlucker, thought the prank would be a great joke, they soon found out differently.  The manager was not amused in the least and both Huner and Kortlucker were arrested and held with $1000 bail on a burglary charge.

In the early years of the 1920s union meetings were regularly held here, such as those of the Riggers and Machinery Movers who met twice every month; and the Sons of Italy took the entire top floor.  On January 5, 1921 around 9:20 p.m. President Rosarero Casero, Fortunato Pallizi, and Frank Cassatti were going over the minutes of a previous meeting in preparation for that night’s meeting scheduled for about 45 minutes later.  Their quiet discussion was interrupted by armed robbers.

“Suddenly the door was thrust open and the three officials looked up from their work and faced the bandits.  ‘Stick up your hands!’ was the command, given in Italian,” reported The Evening World.

The men were herded into a corner and forced to give up their money and jewelry.  The thieves got away with $1,500 in money and jewelry and a revolver that “one of the victims had a permit to carry, but not time to use,” said the newspaper.  The World noted “The visit of the bandits was ill-timed, as half an hour later, when members assembled for the meeting, they would have had fifty or seventy-five victims, many of them wealthy Italians.  One of the pieces of jewelry taken was a diamond ring valued at $700.”

By 1927 the wonderful parapet had been removed and the grisly addition added at street level -- NYPL collection
Around the time of the robbery the aging German Odd Fellows Hall was renovated.  The exuberant parapet was removed and the stoop removed.  At street level and grotesque bunker-like addition extended to the property line—a featureless box that provided additional interior space and obliterated the architectural integrity of the first floor.

The old Odd Fellows Hall became the Emergency Shelter in 1938—a rehabilitation center for men and boys.  The Shelter had been formed in 1929 at No. 259 Greene Street.   The interior spaces were renovated to provide dormitories on the top three floors, a chapel and office on the second, and a kitchen, dining room and office on street level.

As if the street level addition were not unsightly enough, today it is painted purple -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1991 the venerable building was converted to expansive apartments—just one per floor—with a duplex penthouse on taking up the top two stories.   In creating the residential spaces, no attempt was made to improve the unsightly scar left by the lost cornice, nor to remedy the gruesome street level addition.

In between, however, four stories of handsome 1890 fa├žade survive; a relic of a time when the German language was more prevalent than English on the block.

photo by Alice Lum


  1. I lived at 69 St Marks Place shelter in the 80s while in my late teens. I wish I got a chance to thank the counselors.

    1. My father Leonard Schneider, was the director. He knew that the teens appreciated the work he did but it's nice to hear. What are you doing now?