Monday, January 21, 2019

The Lost Tammany Hall - 137-149 East 14th St

The sign for Tony Pastor's Theatre is above the eastern entrance (left)  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
The Tammany Society was one of several social clubs by that name which arose in Philadelphia and other cities   The New York society elected its first officers in 1789, its members being mostly craftsmen and mechanics along with a few professionals like attorneys and merchants.  They dressed in Native American costumes, were known as braves, and were divided into tribes.  The group first met in a room in Martling's Tavern on Chatham Street.  Originally non-partisan, by 1795 it was solely allied with the Democratic Party.  

Tammany Hall built a new clubhouse at 170 Nassau Street in 1812.  But by the end of the Civil War, the neighborhood was filled with business buildings and on March 20, 1867 the members decided to sell.  The New York Times deemed it a good idea.  "The old house has a famous history and at one time was the seat of the political power of the country," it noted.  But the decision to relocate was "a very proper move."

A year earlier the Academy of Music at the corner of 14th Street and Irving Place had burned.  Architect Thomas R. Jackson had been selected to design the replacement building.  Now he was commissioned by the Tammany Society to design its new clubhouse directly next door, at Nos. 137-149 East 14th Street where the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons stood.

The cornerstone was laid on Independence day, 1867.  Place next to the metal box was the original "casket" from the 1811 cornerstone.  Among the items within the new version were gold and silver coins minted in 1867, a bill for the construction, a History of Tammany Society, and the program and an invitation to the day's ceremonies.

T'he souvenir pamphlet handed out that day included a description of the building.  The 116-foot wide structure would be three stories tall "and to be built of marble and red brick, the marble extending thirty feet high in the front."  There would be "a fine triple window in the centre twenty-five feet wide, surmounted by a straight pediment."  The the arrangement of the openings of the flanking pavilions created a Palladium effect.  Above the cornice would be "a massive pediment, bearing in large letters the words 'Tammany Society.'"  On either side were the dates 1763 and 1867 and an enormous arched niche held at 12-foot statue of a Native American (presumably Tamanend, leader of the Lenape tribe from whom the society took its name).

Inside were impressive spaces--a capacious library, the "grand hall," and a concert room; as well as the expected clubrooms and committee rooms.  The pamphlet described the concert room as "one of the most beautiful ever constructed in this city."  With seating for 1,000, its frescoed ceiling rose 30 feet above the floor and its stage was 52-feet wide.  The main committee room, 35 x 75 feet, had a "ceiling as heavenly as the concert room."

Females, who would appear only on evenings of concerts and entertainments, were provided for.  "On the second floor the rights of women are to be recognized by a dressing-room thirty-two by forty feet."  Nearby was the gentlemen's dressing room.  The third floor contained the grand hall, reportedly the most spacious in the nation.  It could accommodate 4,000 persons.

Proceedings of the Tammany Society, July 1867 (copyright expired)

There were three entrances on 14th Street.  They not only provided balance, but led to rental spaces.  The entrance to the east, next to the Academy of Music, accessed the concert hall and also led to the public hall.  The basement was set aside for a restaurant which "will answer to all the increased and cultured epicureanism of that section of the city."  

Jackson placed the cost of construction at $300,000--just over $5 million today.

The building would be dedicated exactly one year later, July 4, 1868.  As it neared, the Tammany-loathing New York Herald used a derogatory, roundabout way to announce the date.  "The big Indians of the Tammany ring--men who have grown fat and are growing fatter on the spoils of this Corporation--the grand sachems, little sachems, pappooses [sic], sagamores and whiskeyskinskis, assisted by the representatives of the national democracy from all the States and Territories of the Union, reconstructed and unreconstructed, and aided by the women's rights women, too, will meet on 'the glorious Fourth' to inaugurate this new temple of the 'Tammany Society of the Columbian Order.'"

The article recalled the group's sometimes pugilistic meetings saying, "The history of the old Tammany Hall is a starling record of democratic lovefeasts of the Donnybrook order, fruitful of faction fight, cracked crowns, bloody noses and used up locofocos, and it will be almost a miracle if the new Tammany Hall escapes a similar baptism."

On the day before the ceremony the building was draped in red-white-and-blue bunting and an enormous canopy composed of evergreens called "The Archway of Triumph,"stretched from curb to curb. The New York Herald deemed it "a cheerful and festal piece of ornamentation, odorous as well of the forest atmosphere, so dear and inspiring to the old braves."  The decorations, inside and out, cost Tammany $20,000, according to The New York Times.

The scene during the building's dedication.  Tammany Hall Souvenir of the Inauguration of Cleveland and Stevenson, 1893 ( copyright expired)
The next day was oppressively hot, with temperatures reaching into the 90's.  The New York Herald said the heat played "sad havoc with shirt collars" and described people using any manner of article with which to fan themselves--straw hats, pocket handkerchiefs, newspapers and "old battered wideawakes."  (Wideawakes are the broad-rimmed hats still worn by Quakers.)

"That great big arc de triomphe in front of Tammany, with its huge integument of evergreens, riveted many an eye.  Though not artistic it looked cool, and who cares for art with the thermometer going higher than a kite and his shirt collar wilting like the tender petal of an uprooted flower."

The New York Times was less openly critical, at least about the structure. The dedication coincided with the Democratic National Convention.  The newspaper said the delegates were welcomed "to one of the most splendid halls in the country.  New-York City is not deeply indebted to Tammany Society for blessings conferred, but it does owe the organization for one of the finest and most imposing building fronts the City can boast."

Turning to the great hall, the article said "This great space has been finished with the most perfect taste, and exhibits none of that glaring obtrusive art found in to many public buildings.  The frescoing and gilding done by Philip Donnoruma, is especially noticeable for the perfect taste that has dictated every touch of the artist's brush."  Flanking the stage were two enormous bronze figures holding candelabras, each supporting 60 gas jets.

The great hall, decorated for the National Democratic Convention upon the building's dedication.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
As political meetings began within the committee rooms and great hall, Dan Bryant signed a lease for the concert hall.  Bryan was, actually, Dan O'Neill.  He and his brother, Jerry, took the stage name Bryan after they formed Bryant's Minstrels in 1857.  The Civil War had not dampened the group's offerings of plantation-themed comedy, Southern banjo music by Stephen Foster and similar composers, and blatantly racist black-faced comedians.

On March 1, 1868 The New York Times had announced "Dan Bryant is now in Mobile...In the Fall, when his new theatre over Tammany Hall is opened, Mr. Bryant will reappear in his Congo dress, and play the bones."  Bryant's Minstrels drew crowds in it new space.  It reported gross receipts in May 1870 of $142,000 by today's standards.

Because city government and the Tammany Society were essentially the same; graft and corruption were nearly effortless.  The New York Times exposed a scheme on July 8, 1871.  In the spring of 1870 the city rented space in the building for use as the armory of the Sixth Regiment--the top floor and five or six small rooms on the floor below.  Rent was paid for the empty space for a year before the regiment moved in.  The Times scoffed at the functionality of the space, saying the practical size of the drill room was 100 x 40 feet.

But worse yet, "The entire portion of the building that is used for military purposes could not be let for any legitimate business for $3,000 a year," said the newspaper, "but the municipal Ring pays...the snug little sum of $36,000 per year."

Bryant's Minstrels was replaced by The Germania Theatre by 1876; and then in 1881 actor and manager Antonio "Tony" Pastor moved his troupe in.   A year earlier the brilliant impresario had been approached by a woman who "said she knew a little girl with a lovely voice," as he later recalled.  He met the Helen (Nellie) Louise Leonard in the parlor of the rooming house where she lived and she sang "The Clang of the Wooden Shoes" for him.

He was so struck by her voice that he sat numb.  Helen said "Oh, Mr Pastor, don't you like my singing?"  Once he recovered he hired her on the spot and she appeared at the Tony Pastor Theatre on Broadway under the new stage name he gave her, Lillian Russell.  She was the most famous of the several stage stars discovered by Pastor who would now appear in the new location.

To the left a section of the Academy of Music can be glimpsed.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
An arsonist used the theater to access the building on October 23, 1884, thereby avoiding the doorman at the main entrance.   Between the "green room" of Pastor's and the barroom of the clubhouse was a small closet where the man soaked newspapers and a bundle of rags in kerosene and ignited them.

Just after the performance had ended, patrons of the barroom noticed smoke.  The bartender and a porter searched, and "found a fire burning fiercely upon the floor," according to The New York Times.  The flooring was ripped up and the fire extinguished before substantial damaged could be done.  The following day Chief Shay of the Fire Department "was on hand to look after the safety of the wigwam."

Tammany Hall was essentially omnipotent in New York City operations.  The February 1894 issue of The Atlantic Monthly said "No one who has not lived in New York can imagine the despotic power which Tammany Hall exercises there.  No citizen is too humble to be beneath its notice; no citizen is too rich or too powerful to be safe from its interference.  Thee is not a man living in New York, however independent his character, who would not think twice before doing an act likely to offend Tammany, or the city government, for they are one and the same thing."

from the collection of the New York Public Library
Nevertheless, as was the case with that article, newspapers and magazines spoke out.   The following month the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide railed "While the leaders of Tammany Hall are...opposing any increase of salaries to the policemen, they are pushing increases of salaries to some of the highly paid Tammany Halls heads."  One example cited was the salary of the Superintendent of the Department of Buildings, proposed to be raised to more than $200,000 a year in today's dollars.

And when Charles F. Murphy was elected head of Tammany Hall in December 1903, the New-York Tribune ran a full-page photo of him, captioned "PHOTOGRAPH OF THE REAL MAYOR OF NEW-YORK FOR THE NEXT TWO YEARS."

The "Real Mayor."  New-York Tribune December 27, 1903 (copyright expired)
In March 1906 Tony Pastor celebrated the 25th anniversary of his theater within the Tammany building and the 50th anniversary of his "grown-up" career in the theater (he started out as a child actor).  But two years after that stellar performance, Tony Pastor's occupation of the space came to an end.

On August 30, 1908 the New-York Tribune reported "The Olympic Theatre, formerly Tony Pastor's was opened last night.  The attraction this week will be the Bowery Burlesquers, and they will give two performances daily."

A major fire erupted in Tammany Hall on December 12, 1910.  The New-York Tribune reported "For two hours yesterday morning the fate of Tammany Hall hung in the balance while several fire companies...fought to save the grim old tiger's historic lair on East 14th Street."  Investigators blamed the blaze on "the cigar of some careless merry maker who had attended the dance there the night before."

The great hall, which had been converted to a ballroom for the previous night's event, was flooded as was the floor below.  The Olympic Theatre was "badly damaged by the deluge," said the newspaper.   The total damage was initially estimated at $25,000.  Happily, none of the historic paintings nor the Society's records were destroyed or seriously damaged.

The New-York Tribune remarked "The fire revives the talk, prevalent no long ago, of the society deserting this building, erected in 1867, and moving up town to a new wigwam."

An electric blade sign announces the Olympic in this turn of the century photo. The staircases at street level have been removed.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
Only three weeks later the building was on fire again.  On January 6, 1911 The Sun reported "Tammany Hall made another effort to burn up last night."  The fire started, this time, in the theater during a performance, most likely among painters' supplies under the stage.  The patrons were herded out, but they were addressed by Police Captain Burfiend on the street who informed them that the small fire had been put out and they could return to their seats.

The show went on, but not without some difficulties.  "Water poured through the hole over the stage, however.  While the Ginger Girls did their Amazon march in broken ranks, dodging splashes of dirty water and buckets of sawdust placed on the floor to receive it, the firemen were busy just over them pouring on more water, 'washing down' after the fire."

In December 1915 the vaudeville troupe the Broadway Belles opened for a week at the Olympic Theatre.  The Evening World remarked that comedian Joe Marks "long identified with the best known burlesque attractions...kept the large crowd in roars of laughter."  At the time the theater's landlords were considering a move.  Eight months earlier the Tammany Society met to discuss "the project of moving from its historic large and more modern quarters uptown," according to the Record & Guide on April 24.  "Action was deferred, however, till a later date."

That date would not come until 1927.  On December 6 The New York Times reported "Tammany Hall has been sold."  The price for the property was "believed to be in the neighborhood of $750,000."

Tammany did not move far.  In 1929 its new clubhouse was completed just three blocks north, at No. 100 East 17th Street.  Today the old site is covered by the block-engulfing Con Edison Building.

The Con Edison tower sit upon the old Academy of Music site; Tammany Hall's site is directly behind.

1 comment:

  1. The old tammany hall building was demolished