|The Astor Place Opera House sat within the most exclusive of Manhattan neighborhoods -- "Views of New York," Henry Hoff, publisher, 1850, from the collection of the New York Public Library|
|Palmo's Opera House predated the Astor Place house by three years -- New-York Tribune, August 25, 1907 (copyright expired)|
In order that Italian opera might not perish from the earth but live on, surrounded by the architectural splendor appropriate to it, one hundred and fifty men of social prominence got together and guaranteed to support it for five years, and Messrs. Foster, Morgan and Colles built the Astor Place Opera House.
It contained somewhere about 1,100 excellent seats in parquet (the Parisian parterre), dress circle and first tier, with some seven hundred in the gallery. Its principal feature was that everybody could see, and what is of infinitely greater consequence, could be seen.
|The elegant interior was transformed for the New York Fire Department Ball--from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Shortly after the opening Peterson Magazine wondered whether the concept of season box-holders was a good idea. “This opera house is to be patronized chiefly by subscribers, an experiment for this country, and perhaps a doubtful one.” Nevertheless, the writer was highly impressed with the patronage on opening night. “However, on the night when the Astor Opera House opened, there was a display of beauty and fashion in the dress circle altogether unparalleled.”
That the owners intended to maintain a high-class patronage at the Astor Place was evidenced in admission prices. When Lucia Di Lamermoor opened in November 1848, an advertisement noted that tickets for the Parquet and First and Second Tiers cost $1.00—about $25 today.
While the wealthy enjoyed the near-exclusivity of their neighborhood opera house, the general public was offended. An article in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book later complained, “The monopoly of the best seats by certain subscribers and stockholders of the Astor Place Opera House, has been the great objection and great drawback to that establishment. To the masses of the rest of the community, it has an appearance of exclusiveness and monopoly which will not be tolerated by them.”
The dichotomy between classes, as well as the rivalry between England and America, boiled over on May 10, 1849. Edwin Forrest was the reigning American tragedian, the position held in England by Irish-born William Macready. A fierce rivalry already existed between the two actors and local loyalties to Forrest were intense. When the Astor Opera House booked Mccready to play Macbeth, thousands crowded into the streets of the fashionable neighborhood to voice their dissatisfaction.
While the moneyed patrons inside applauded the British actor, scores of disgruntled immigrants who had paid their $1 admission were intent on disrupting the performance. A pamphlet with the unwieldy title “Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House on the Night of May 10th 1849, with the Quarrels of Forrest and Macready, including all the Causes which led to that Awful Tragedy!” laid out the details of that night:
Around this edifice, we say, a vast crowd was gathered. On the stage the English actor Macready was trying to play the part of Macbeth, in which he was interrupted by hisses and hootings, and encouraged by the cheers of a large audience, who had crowded the house to sustain him. On the outside a mob was gathering, trying to force an entrance into the house, and throwing volleys of stones at the barricaded windows. In the house the police were arresting those who made the disturbance—outside they were driven back by volleys of paving stones.
|The rioters broke windows and attempted to set fire to the Opera House -- "Account of the Terrific and Fatal Riot at the New-York Astor Place Opera House" 1849 (copyright expired)|
|The renovated Clinton Hall as it appeared around 1875 -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/%5bView-of-Clinton-Hall,-Astor-Place.%5d-2F3XC5UP4EMX.html|
The Clinton Hall trustees spent $140,000 on the building and invested another $115,000 to adapt it for the purposes of the library, lecture rooms, reading rooms, and meeting rooms. The New York Times remarked that the “great desideratum in rooms devoted to library purposes is not only an abundance of light, but that it shall be properly distributed.”
|At one point a savings bank leased space in the building -- photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library|
|The 1891 Clinton Hall still stands at No. 13 Astor Place -- photograph by Beyond My Ken|