Thursday, July 31, 2014

Aschenbroedel Verein -- No. 74 East 4th Street

photo by Alice Lum
By 1855 New York City had the third largest German population in the world—outranked only by Vienna and Berlin.  The New York Times, forty years later, would explain “The revolution of 1848-1849 in Germany caused many a brave German to leave his beloved Fatherland and seek refuge within the borders of the United States.  These refugees brought with them the habits and customs of the land of their birth, and shortly after their arrival on American soil they banded themselves together in organizations similar to those they so dearly loved in the Old World.”

By midcentury German bier gartens, music halls, and social halls provided the residents entertainment and diversion. In 1860 the Aschenbroedel Verein, or Cinderella Club, was founded by professional orchestral musicians in a “little public house at Broome and Mott streets,” as described by The Sun later.  It was not only a social and musical club, but was involved in philanthropic works as well.  Along with the Arion Society and the Liederkranz Club, it would grow to become one of the leading German musical-based institutions of New York.

Six years later the club was large (and financially stable) enough to purchase the property at No. 74 East 4th Street in the heart of Little Germany.  The group initially used the existing structure and in 1870 was successful in petitioning the city for improvements.  The minutes of the Common Council on Monday, September 12, 1870 noted “Resolved, That two street-lamps be placed and lighted in front of No. 74 East Fourth street.”

But before long the building was demolished and German-born architect August H. Blankenstein was hired to design a permanent clubhouse.  The four-story brick-clad building was completed by the fall of 1873, and on November 7 The New York Times reported “The Aschenbroedel Verein, an association of musicians organized for social and benevolent purposes, inaugurated its new club-house at No. 74 East Fourth street last night, by an entertainment of music and social festivities.”

Among the members were several highly-esteemed musicians, including Theodore Thomas (who headed the highly-popular Theodore Thomas Orchestra), Carl Bergmann, and Walter Damrosch. 

Damrosch was born into a musical family.  His mother was the opera singer Helene von Heimburg; and his father the conductor Leopold Damrosch.   Walter Damrosch studied at the Dresden Conservatory before arriving in New York with his parents in 1871. 

Damrosch’s father would found the New York Symphony Society in 1878, a fierce competitor to the older New York Philharmonic Society of New York, organized in 1842.  Despite the Damrosch ties, it was the Philharmonic Society that shared space in the clubhouse.  In 1880 A Dictionary of Music and Musicians noted that the headquarters of the Philharmonic Society of New York “are at Aschenbroedel’s Club-house, No. 74 East 4th Street.  Its large and comprehensive library is kept at No. 333 Eat 18th st.”

By 1888 there were 600 members of the Aschenbroedel Verein.  The organization gave concerts to raise money for its charitable causes .  One such event was held on September 21 to aid sick or invalid members or their families.  “Seven thousand people fond of music and sure of hearing the best were packed and jammed into Washington Park, Sixty-ninth street and Eastern Boulevard, last evening at the great concert given by the Aschenbroedel Society in aid of its relief fund,” reported The Sun the following day.

Three hundred members comprised the orchestra and the newspaper reported that “The announcement that Theodore Thomas was to be the conductor, that Miss Emma Juch and Messrs, Theo. Toedt, Geo. Prehn, and Rafael Joseffy were to contribute their services, together with the moderate entrance fees of 50 cents and $1. brought an immense crowd.”  Following the concert around midnight, the Jones Wood Coliseum next door was opened for dancing.  The society netted $3,000 for its relief fund—an significant $71,000 by today’s measure.

Within three years the four-story clubhouse had become too small for the still-growing association, now numbering 700.  The Sun reported “Some time ago, however, the members concluded that they needed a bigger house, and that it would be pleasanter to have it up town.  Very soon thereafter steps were taken to secure such a house.”  On May 16, 1891 an advertisement appeared in the Record & Guide offering “A very fine piece of property, known as Aschenbrodel Club House, 74 East 4th st.”  The property was offered at $56,000.

On April 27, 1892 the members “and several thousand friends” were on hand for the laying of the club’s new headquarters on 86th Street near Lexington Avenue.  The Sun somewhat sarcastically called the planned clubhouse “Cinderella’s Palace.”

A month later the sale of the 4th Street property to the Schillerbund Gesangverein  was completed.  One of the city’s oldest German singing societies, it had been meeting nearby at No. 62 East 4th Street.  Now it commissioned German-born architects Kurtzer & Rohl to revamp the building as its own.  Frederick William Kurtzer and Richard O. L. Rohl transformed the exterior with ambitious cast iron ornamentation pretending to be stone.  Combing neo-Grec and German Renaissance Revival elements, they ran quoins up the sides, crowned the windows in Renaissance-inspired pediments, and placed the busts of three composers over the second floor openings.

Cast iron mimicked stone against the brick facade and a dramatic broken pediment above sat like a tiara -- photo by Alice Lum
Six months later the renovations were complete and on November 15, 1892 the club formally opened its new $45,000 home.  Unfortunately, a bad rain storm put the damper on many of the planned festivities.  “It had been intended to have a procession from the old building to the new, but the rain stopped that and also the fireworks,” reported The New York Times the following morning.  The newspaper noted that the Schillerbund had had the clubhouse “almost entirely rebuilt and refitted.”

The musicians' busts steal attention from the intricate cast iron designs -- photo by Alice Lum
“The new home is a well-fitted and handsome four-story structure.  On the ground floor are fine blowing alleys, the kitchen and restaurant.  The second floor is used for assembly and meeting rooms, the third for lodge rooms, and the top of the house is occupied by the tenant.”

The Schillerbund had been founded on January 3, 1850 when a group of men assembled “at Louis Rippel’s Hall, 47 Rose Street, for the purpose of forming a singing society,” according to The Times on July 14, 1895.  “So heartily did the German element of this city respond, that before the close of January a permanent organization was formed.”

By now the membership was about 400.  The Times ranked the remodeled clubhouse as “one of the best Maennerchor clubhouses in that section of the city.”  But within only a few years the choral group moved on.  By the turn of the century the building was briefly used as a Polish social club, called Krywaczy’s Hall.

On September 6, 1901 anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot and fatally wounded President William McKinley.  The members of Krywaczy’s Hall were quick to react.  On September 12 The New York Times reported “Czolgosz will be denounced and a message of sympathy sent to President McKinley by the Poles of this city.  They are to have a mass meeting at 8 o’clock tomorrow night in Krywaczy’s Hall, 74 East fourth Street, and sixty different Polish societies will be represented by delegates.”

Denunciation of the assassin was not enough, apparently.  Krywaczy’s Hall was given the new name of McKinley Hall.

The Hall was sold in 1904 and became a popular venue for political and labor meetings.  “There was the liveliest sort of a row last night at a McKinley Hall…by the residents of the lower East Side who have been trying to perfect an organization to fight the landlords’ raise in their rents,” reported The Times on April 11 that year.

In reporting on the same meeting, the New-York Tribune made clear its support of the New-York Rent Protective Association.  “A meeting to protest against the rent raising of the East Side landlords and consider ways and means further to outwit them in their extortions will be held at McKinley Hall, No. 74 East Fourth-st., to-night.”

A year later Minster Realty Company purchased the building and before long it was leased to a most unexpected tenant.  On December 2, 1905 The Sun reported “A scheme known as the Newsboys’ Athletic Club is just getting into working order in Fourth street near the Bowery.  The scheme involves a gymnasium, a reading room and a club with newsboy membership.  If the story told is straight—and it sounds straight as a die—the scheme has very unusual backing.  Jack Sullivan, a newsboy, is practically alone as founder, manager and backer.”

Jack Sullivan was known across the city as the “King of the Newsboys.”  He had organized the rag-tag group of boys and they successfully carried out a strike for better wages.  The enterprising young man studied the workings of men's social clubs and had envisioned a refuge for the newsboys.  Starting with his own money, he was able to get financial support from businessmen and reform workers.

By December 1905 about $5,000 in renovations had been done.  Sullivan showed a reporter from The Sun the layout on December 1.  The former dance hall on the first floor was now the gymnasium, outfitted with rings, bars, trapezes, two punching bags, horses and a basketball hoop.   “It is a first class outfit and a full one,” said the newspaper.  The second floor had Jack’s office and a reading room, decorated with photographs of “poets and Presidents.”  There were also showers, lockers and a dormitory on the top floor with cots where “over seventy-five homeless waifs may find shelter during the Winter,” according to The Times.

Sullivan’s endeavor was not just to create a club for the boys—he intended to improve them.  For ten cents a week the newsboys, ranging in age from seven to 20 years, could use Newsboys’ Hall; but in order to make use of the gymnasium, for instance, they were required to study.  “Spelling, reading, writing, and geography being the curriculum that Sullivan deems of sufficient importance just at present,” said The Times.

Jack Sullivan’s unique project caught the eye of the nation.  On the day of the opening there were letters of congratulations from President Theodore Roosevelt, Helen Gould and millionaire H. McKay Twombly.  Instead of cake and speeches, the opening of the club was an unscripted free-for-all in the gym.  The New York Times said the gymnasium “was alive with bag punchers, impromptu wrestlers, and basket ball enthusiasts.”

The club was a success and benefits were held throughout the years to keep it going.  On March 3, 1907 a vaudeville entertainment was staged at the Academy of Music, netting the club $5,000.  Sullivan’s determination that the boys would better themselves was reflected in lectures and courses presented in the hall, like the six-part Course on First Aid to the Injured in 1909.

A group of newsboys pose near the Brooklyn Bridge in 1908 -- photograph Library of Congress
Work with Boys magazine reported in January 1912 that “In May 1911, the lease on the 4th Street property expired.  As the Club had outgrown the capacity of the building, it was decided to secure a larger place.”  That turned out to be the former New York Historical Society at Second Avenue and 11th Street.
photo by Alice Lum
Newsboys’ Hall returned to its life as a political and labor hall; now called Floral Garden.  On the first floor was a restaurant run by Nathan Hirsch.  By now the world was terrorized by anarchist groups like the Black Hand and the Industrial Workers of the World.  Problems came for Hirsch when he accepted a $3 deposit for the dining room of Floral Hall from Vincenzo Fabbrocino in May 1914.  Fabbrocino was a printer and he told the proprietor that he needed the hall for a meeting of the typographical union.

Before the day of the meeting a week later, Hirsch discovered that instead, the meeting was of IWW officers.   The New York Times reported that according to circulars “the meeting in Floral Garden was to have been ‘an international mass meeting in the matter of Augusto Masetti, the Italian Anti-Militarist who shot his Colonel when he was ordered to shoot his fellow-workers.'”

On May 24, when the members began arriving, Nathan Hirsch blocked their entrance.  “More agitators arrived and demanded admittance.  Hirsch was obdurate, and by 2:30 o’clock, the time for which the meeting was scheduled, a large crowd was before the hall, asserting that it would break its way in, and threatening violent.”

The Evening World reported “A riot followed, in which the police were forced to fight back the I. W. W. crowd, which began a bombardment of paving stones.”  As the melee played out on in the street, a wedding was scheduled to take place on the second floor of the hall.  The bride and the flower girls “arrived just in time to follow the police in through the crowds outside,” said The Times.  “They were alarmed at the loud noise and fled up the steps.”

In 1916 part of the upper portion of the building was being used by messenger boys as their headquarters.  Taking their lead from Jack Sullivan’s successful newsboy strike several years earlier, they went on strike against the Western Union and Postal Telegraph Companies, who employed 2,500 messenger boys.

In the days before the internet, faxes and widespread telephone service, message boys scurried up and down New York City’s streets carrying hand-written messages.  The boys knew that if they stopped working, there would be a disastrous effect on business.  On November 2, 1916 The Evening World said “The boys appear to be taking things easy with the assurance that they will win in the end.  They know of the scarcity of boys in the city and feel confident their places cannot be filled.  They content themselves with hanging around headquarters at No. 74 East Fourth Street, shooting craps and smoking cigarettes, after returning from selling newspapers.”

The boys had three demands:  “For nightly workers, a wage of $12 a week, with a seventy-hour week and a day off every other week; for day workers a wage of $1.50 a day, ten hour day and a day off every two weeks, and a half-hour for lunch; and for boys who worked on commission, a flat rate of 3 cents for delivery a telegram.”

Throughout the rest of the 20th century, until 1967, the building saw a variety of uses.  There were apartments upstairs in the 1920s; and the lower levels housed a meatpacking plant and a laundry at different times. 

In 1961 Ellen Stewart rented a theater in the basement of nearby No. 321 East 9th Street and established Café La MaMa.  After moving three times, she found No. 74 East 4th Street.  In 1967 she received grants from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, enabling her to renovate the building.  Since that time La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club has been a vibrant venue for live theater in the Lower East Side. 

Only the decorated cast iron supports of the ground floor remain.  It appears that architectural attractiveness was not on the list of renovation requirements.  photo by Alice Lum
Although the ground floor has been sadly obliterated, the upper floors of this historic structure are mostly intact since Kurtzer & Rohl’s 1892 renovations—a handsome reminder of a time when German, not English, was the predominant language of the neighborhood.

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