Monday, November 25, 2013

The Lost Chickering Hall -- No. 130 Fifth Ave.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

During the turbulent Civil War years piano and organ dealers clustered along Broadway, mostly below Houston Street.  In 1860 there were no fewer than four piano showrooms along the block between Prince and Houston alone.  Among them was Chickering & Sons at No. 694 Broadway, a Boston-based firm renowned for its superb quality and design. 

In 1864 William Steinway jumped ahead of the piano district by erecting an elegant showroom building on East 14th Street near Fifth Avenue.  Well-heeled customers could browse among over 100 Steinway & Sons pianos here; away from the distraction of competitors’ showrooms.  Two years later Steinway scored a coup when he ingeniously constructed a concert hall to the rear of his building.  Now audiences who came to hear performances would get first-hand demonstrations of the Steinway instruments played by top musicians.

Steinway’s luck increased when Manhattan’s premier concert venue, the Academy of Music, burned down four days below Steinway Hall’s grand opening.

By 1874 Chickering was ready to meet the challenge posed by Steinway Hall.  The firm broke ranks with the Broadway piano merchants and signed a 25-year lease on the lot at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 18th Street—a neighborhood that a generation earlier had been the city’s most exclusive residential district and included Frank Chickering’s own mansion at No. 5 Fifth Avenue.  Architect George B. Post was hired to design a structure that could house a vast piano showroom, music store, warehouse and—most importantly—a concert hall to rival Steinway’s.

Chickering’s planned move would instigate a migration of the piano and organ dealers.  Before the turn of the century Fifth Avenue and Union Square would see the construction of grand buildings of piano makers—the Sohmer Piano and Decker Brothers buildings among them.  But for now Chickering could claim Fifth Avenue.
Chickering invited "friends and the public" to the new structure -- The Sun, December 18, 1875 (copyright expired)

Post’s Chickering Hall was completed within six months of breaking ground.  The impressive structure cost $175,000—a substantial $3 million today.  At four stories tall, pretending to be two, it was a stocky red brick structure trimmed in marble and brownstone.  Immense arches, two stories tall, commanded attention; there were three along the Fifth Avenue faΓ§ade, mimicked by five blind arches down 18th Street.  Post capped it all with a tiled hipped roof.

Chickering Hall sat among the mansions of a still-residential Fifth Avenue.  Note the smart carriage and footman to the left -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The auditorium filled the second and third floors.  It was praised for its acoustics and could accommodate 1,500 patrons.  The hall was hastily opened on Monday evening, November 15, 1875 before the interior decorations were fully finished.  The rush to throw the doors open was the result of a one-time opportunity for Frank Chickering’s firm.

Internationally renowned pianist Hans Von Bulow had planned his American debut for November 1875 in New York City.  The eccentric musician was highly selective about the make of piano he would use and discussions had gone on for months.  Finally he settled on Steinway and Chickering as the only pianos he would play.  Von Bulow’s manager entered into negotiations with both firms.  Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic reported that both Steinway and Chickering had offered $20,000 to land Von Bulow on their stages.

Frank Chickering was no doubt jubilant when Hans Von Bulow agreed to open at Chickering Hall.   The opening night of Chickering Hall was a stellar one.  Hans Von Bulow was backed up by Leopold Damrosch’s orchestra—which two years later became the New York Symphony Orchestra.  It was marketing gold when Von Bulow told the press “On other pianos, I have to play as the piano permits; on the Chickering I play just as I wish.”

Hans Von Bulow plays with Damrosch's orchestra on opening night -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
A journalist in the audience gave the performance a rave review, saying that “From the moment he touches the keys Bulow disappears, and nothing but the work…remains.”  He called the Chickering piano “the wonderful instrument which served Mr. von Bulow so faithfully, so obediently, so lovingly.”

The Von Bulow tour stretched on for weeks, both in New York at Chickering Hall, and on the road.  Chickering pianos followed the artist; but his intense dislike of commercialism repeatedly caused problems.   More than once the pianist kicked over the large signboard advertising Chickering Pianos; once sending it sailing behind the orchestra.  When Frank Chickering tried to solve the problem by stenciling the name Chickering in gold letters on the instrument, Von Bulow pulled out a penknife and scratched out the name.

Elegantly-dressed patrons ascend the grand staircase to the concert hall on December 4, 1875 -- from the collection of the New York Public Library
Two months after its opening Chickering Hall received its $15,000 custom-built organ.  Constructed by Hilborne L. Roosevelt, The New York Times called it “a very successful achievement.”  The organ was premiered in a concert by organists Morgan Whitely, George and William Warren, S. Austen Pearce and Dudey Buck.  The newspaper noted that “Some of the effects…were uncommonly beautiful, and the voix celeste approximated so closely to the ideal of angels’ chants, that the assemblage broke out into rapturous applause almost before the sounds had died away.”

Von Bulow’s widely-publicized concerts that inaugurated Chickering Hall had pushed, at least for a while, Steinway Hall off the entertainment pages.  But while famed musical artists, orators and singers would go on to grace the boards of Chickering Hall; not all the performances would be critically-acclaimed. 

On December 12, 1876 a young Russian pianist made her American debut here.  Mlle. Theresa Jakonbovitsch disappointed the critic of the New-York Tribune.  He wrote “She promises more than she is as yet able to accomplish.”  Although he tried to be kind (“She seems to be intelligent; she certainly plays carefully”); he summed up her performance saying “But, as it seems to us, she ought rather to be studying than playing in public.”

The vast auditorium was not devoted only to music.  Other large assemblages used the hall including, surprisingly, the proceedings in what The New York Times called “the famous Forrest divorce suit” in April 1876; and Professor Huxley’s series of three lectures on The Theory of Evolution in September that same year.  The British scientist deftly presented his evidence of evolution while avoiding the bruising of some less broad-minded Victorian minds in the audience.

The following year, in May 1877, audiences were spellbound by a demonstration by Alexander Graham Bell of his new invention—the telephone.  Bell’s demonstration, unfortunately, was only partially successful.  The Times reported on several of the experiments.  In one case “Mr. Watson was asked to repeat some phrase loudly and slowly a number of times.  The phrase was announced to be ‘Do you understand what I say?’  What came from the boxes was, “Oo, boo, boobooboo, boo, boo, boo.’  Mr. Watson next tried to say ‘How do you do?’ but only succeeded in transmitting ‘boo,boo—boo,boo.’”

By the 1880s the mansion next door to Chickering hall had been converted for commercial purposes -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1882 poet Oscar Wilde arrived in America for a lecture tour and on January 9 crowds filed into Chickering Hall to hear the famed English writer.  “Before 8 o’clock a placard setting forth that there was ‘standing room only’ within was displayed at the entrance.  A large portion of those who attended came in coaches, and there were many representatives of families conspicuous in the fashionable world,” reported The New York Times.  “Young men dressed as though for an opera night ranged themselves behind the rear row of seats and along the side aisles.  Ladies attired in rich costumes were numerous, and were prepared to level their opera-glasses at the lecturer upon his appearance.”

The newspaper was a much interested in Wilde’s appearance as in his subject, “English Renaissance.”  In detail it told its readers “His long and bushy hair crowded in front of his ears and nearly to his eyes, but it was brushed well off his forehead.  He wore a low-necked shirt with a turned-down collar and large white necktie, a black claw-hammer coat and white vest, knee-britches, long black stockings, and low shoes with bows.  A heavy gold seal hung to a watch-guard from a fob-pocket.  The poet had no flower in the lapel of his coat.  In his picturesque attire he was a study that seemed greatly to interest the audience.”

Having recapped the lecture, The Times concluded saying “At the finish of the lecture the poet was vigorously applauded, and when he retired from the stage he blushed like a school-girl.”

One-by-one the mansions along Fifth Avenue were converted for business purposes.  photograph by Adolph Witteman, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In 1901 Chickering’s lease with the Mason estate elapsed.  The New York Times reported that “Some time before the expiration of the ground lease, it became known that the Chickering concern would not retain the property.”  By now the entertainment district, along with the piano companies, were already moving northward. 

The building of another piano manufacturer, Mason and Hamlin, had replaced the church behind Chickering Hall by the turn of the century -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

On December 4, 1901 Alliance Realty Company purchased the property for about $575,000.  Four days later The Times reported that “A new mercantile structure will soon rise on the site of Chickering Hall.”  The days of the magnificent structure where New Yorkers heard the world’s foremost musicians, inventors, singers and lecturers had come to an end.

Within months Chickering Hall was demolished and the foundation for an 11-story business building was dug.  It was the scene of tragedy on May 27, 1902 when a crowd of excited viewers crammed the area of the construction site as a parade marched up Fifth Avenue.  The temporary sidewalk erected in front of the deep pit gave way, plunging about 100 persons into the excavation pit.  One man died instantly and “at least fifty were so seriously injured that they either had to receive medical attention on the spot or else were driven away in carriages,” said the police report.

The limestone and brick-clad building that replaced Chickering Hall still survives; obliterating any memory of the once-famous concert hall that stood there before it.

(photograph by the author)


  1. We have a Chickering spinnet in our living room. Where would it have been made?

  2. Interesting history of Chickering Hall and the Roosevelt Organ. As a young boy in Chelsea (on West 22nd Street) I would head down to 14th Street with my family to shop for clothes at the many department stores. Usually we would visit S. Klein's On The (Union) Square, so we must have walked past the site of Chickering Hall quite often. What's really remarkable is that fifty years later I am studying a proposal to rebuild the Roosevelt Organ, currently installed in an Episcopal church in Ohio. Yes, the Roosevelt Organ is still alive and well (but in need of some TLC). Cheers!

    1. Thanks for the update on the organ. That's incredible and great to know.

    2. What wonderful news to discover that the Chickering Hall Roosevelt, Organ #25 still lives! This said as a great fan of Roosevelt pipe organs and Chickering pianos. - Tali

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