Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Remodeled Yorkville Casino - 210-214 East 86th Street

The building as it originally appeared.  photo by Wurts Bros., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

As its name suggests, the Musical Mutual Protective Union was a union of musicians, formed in 1863.  It was opened to "all instrumental performers, who have been residents of the United States for the period of six months previous to application."  In 1904, nearly all of its 5,000 members were German.

At the time, the Yorkville district vied the Lower East Side as a center of Manhattan's German population.  The Musical Mutual Protective Union's headquarters were at 91st Street and Third Avenue, but now the group embarked on an ambitious project.

On July 9, 1904 the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that excavation had begun "for the clubhouse of the Musical Mutual Protective Union, to be erected at Nos. 210-214 East 86th st."   The firm of Levitan & Fischer, composed of Benjamin W. Levitan and Frederick W. Fischer, had won a competition of 14 architects.  Their plans called for a six-story brick and stone structure that would cost $200,000--a significant $6 million in today's money.

The Real Estate Record & Guide, April 29, 1905 (copyright expired)

As construction progressed, on April 29, 1905 the Record & Guide predicted that, "when completed [it] will be one of the noteworthy structures of the Yorkville section."  Above the two-story limestone base would be four floors of "light buff brick with terra cotta trim to match."  

The entrance sat above a wide, low staircase and under a French style glass and iron marquee.  The building's mid-section was dominated by a double-height loggia and balcony with two massive columns.  An enclosed restaurant-roof garden flanked by two arched glass pavilions sat behind a stone balustrade atop the cornice.  Inside would be an "assembly room, ballroom, lodgerooms, supper-rooms, kitchen, service-rooms and offices."  

The building was completed in 1906 and among the first orders of business carried out were the arguments for and against a strike against the Metropolitan Opera House "to force Director [Heinrich] Conried to re-employ the old chorus."  But the Yorkville neighborhood was less interested in the labor negotiations of the Musical Mutual Protective Union, than in the public "Yorkville Casino" portion.

An advertisement in The Tammany Times on September 21, 1907 boasted of the many venues available to rent:

New Yorkville Casino:  Restaurant roof garden, lodge rooms, bowling alleys and billiards, banquet rooms and large dining hall, suitable for large parties, and Beafsteak Room.  Ball Rooms.  All modern improvements.

The large meeting rooms and banquet rooms were used mostly by German groups.  On January 18, 1911, for instance, the Kurlander Young Men's Benefit Association met here.  Among those who were to attend the meeting was Dr. Easias Schlemann, but he would not make it.

Dr. Schlemann was slightly crippled in the right leg.  He arrived at the Yorkville Casino around 9:30 that night and headed to an elevator.  The operator, Peter Vervini, stepped aside for him.  The New York Times reported that Schlemann, "stumbled as he entered the car, his body striking the operating wheel of the elevator and setting the mechanism in operation."

Vervini leaped forward, but was too late as the elevator rose upward on its own.  "An instant afterward a cry rang out through the building."  Vervini and a police officer ran to the second floor and forced the elevator doors.  The elevator had stopped about a foot below the floor.  "Dr. Schlemann lay senseless, his leg crushed between the floor of the car and the bottom of the sill of the shaft door on the second floor."

Firefighters were called to cut a hole in the wall.  Fifteen minutes later it was large enough to extricate the unconscious doctor.  The New York Times said "He was still senseless, but at the hospital it was said that he would not die, although he was in bad shape from shock."  Peter Vervini was arrested, charged with criminal negligence.

The partnership of Levitan & Fischer had been dissolved by 1914 when Frederick W. Fischer was called back to make interior alterations to the building.  The plans called for a "new rear exit and fireproof ceiling" for a motion picture theater.  

It appears that the public spaces of the Yorkville Casino were pushing out the Musical Mutual Protective Union.  Two years later, on December 9, 1916, the Record & Guide reported that Trowbridge & Livingston "have preliminary plans in progress for a six-story brick and stone fire-proof club-house" nearby at 209-215 East 85th Street.  The Musical Mutual Protective Union had purchased the old buildings and demolition was scheduled.

Once that project was underway, Trowbridge & Livingston turned its focus on the Yorkville Casino.  In January 1917 work began on a revised interior layout, "balcony, ornamental stairs, windows, increased seating."  It was a major renovation, costing the equivalent of $4 million today.

The Musical Mutual Protective Union retained possession of the Yorkville Casino, continuing to lease its venues.  On April 6, 1919, for instance, the New-York Tribune reported on the "mass meeting of 5,000 carpenters" that afternoon.  The article said, "discontent with the management of the recent strike, negotiations and wage award is to be voiced."

Because of wide-spread anti-German sentiments during World War I, at the time of that meeting the German-American population was suffering intense discrimination.  It caused a tense situation on the night of May 22, 1919.  

That was the night a benefit play, Der Himmel auf Erden, or Heaven on Earth, was to be staged.  The New York Times reported, "It had been rumored through army and navy barracks in and near the city that the Casino was to be raided by several thousand men in uniform because the play was to be staged in the German language."  Fearing a riot, ten policemen were stationed inside the Casino, 30 patrolmen were deployed throughout the neighborhood "hidden in stores and hallways," and all of the detectives of the precinct were on guard.

The 800 German-Americans who "swarmed into the Casino" that night cheered and applauded the playing of The Star Spangled Banner.  Outside, "a crowd of a hundred civilians waited at the door for the charge of the soldiers and sailors."   But it did not come.  The New York Times explained that the precautionary measures of the Police Department "were conveyed to the raiders in time to prevent a conflict."

Following the war, the Yorkville Casino became a favorite gathering spot for Socialist groups.  On September 25, 1920 the New-York Tribune reported, "More than 800 Socialists assembled at dinner in the Yorkville Casino...last night, to honor the three ousted Socialist Assemblymen and Samuel A. Dewitt and Samuel Orr, their colleagues, who resigned their seats in protect."

And on November 9, 1922 The New York Times wrote, "More than 1,000 persons last night heard Jean Longuet, the French Moderate Socialist leader, make his first speech in New York since his arrival in this country last Friday, at a dinner given in his honor at the Yorkville Casino."

The Socialist newspaper The Daily Worker was founded in January 1924.  The newspaper patted itself on the back two years later, saying "The biggest thing that has happened in the revolutionary movement in America was the launching of The Daily Worker."  On January 8, 1926 it announced, "we are going to celebrate its second birthday in becoming manner."  The newspaper planned a "grand concert and fitting speeches" at the Yorkville Casino on January 10.  "It will be an inspiring event and every worker should be there," urged the article.

Yorkville was the center of New York's Hungarian population , as well, by now.  On November 4, 1926 The Daily Worker announced, "A meeting to protest against the fascist terror in Hungary will be held under the auspices of the Anti-Horthy League at the Yorkville Casino, 86th St. and 3rd Ave., Saturday afternoon."

Although the labor and Socialist meetings were highly visible publicized, the Yorkville Casino still an entertainment venue.  On October 13, 1928, The New York Times reported that the curtain would raise on an operetta, Wenn die Liebe Erwacht, or When Love Awakens, three nights later.  "It will be the opening production of the German Theatre of New York," said the article.

The 1930's saw the German-American residents of the neighborhood split between pro- and anti-Nazi sentiments.  The Yorkville Casino was the meeting place of the Friends of New Germany, a pro-Nazi group.  In 1933 as many at 2,500 persons crowded into its weekly meetings.

But on July 20, 1934 the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported, "That the Nazi spirit in Yorkville is on the wane, is apparent from many angles.  It is held generally that the older element of German Americans in that section...have been in this country long enough to have absorbed democratic principals."  The article said that a recent meeting of the Friends of New Germany, "was the worst, from the viewpoint of attendance."  The numbers had dwindled to about 20 percent of a year earlier, it said.

And a year later, on June 13, 1936, when the German American Bund held a fund-raising event for the Nazi-sponsored Olympic Games, it was met with protests outside.  The New York Times reported, "Under the watchful eye of fifth patrolmen and eight mounted men, 100 persons staged an anti-Olympic demonstration for one hour last night in front of the Yorkville Casino."  The newspaper said that on the sidewalk were cries of "Hitler wants war," "defend American democracy," and "boycott the Nazi Olympics," while the "persons going into the hall replied, 'Heil!' and passed on."

It all boiled over on the night of April 20, 1938 when 60 World War I veterans "went looking for trouble," according to Life magazine.

In Yorkville Casino, in the heart of Manhattan's upper East-Side German district, more than 2,000 swastika-wearing, Hitler-worshiping members of the German-American Bund ("American Nazis") were assembled to celebrate Der Fuhrer's 49th birthday and his grab of Austria.  The Veterans, predominantly Jewish, were scattered in twos and threes through the audience.  In the midst of the speechmaking, an outburst from one of their number brought them to their feet, clapping American Legion caps on their heads.  Outnumbered 35-to-1 in the ensuing riot, they took a terrible beating.

Life magazine captioned this photo, "A Nazi in Storm Trooper uniform (right) slugs a Veteran tussling with another Nazi as he tried to escape down the steps of the Yorkville Casino.  May 2, 1938

The veterans were mercilessly beaten.  However Life magazine cautioned readers not to fall into the ways of the Nazis, themselves.  "After the riot, cries for suppression of the Nazis were understandably redoubled.  But suppression of unpopular minorities is the denial of democracy, the entering wedge of tyranny.  Americans who detest Adolf Hitler's methods will not wish to pay him the compliment of imitation."

Battered World War I veterans sit on the steps inside the Yorkville Casino after the affray.  Life magazine, May 2, 1938

Following the end of Prohibition, a nightclub operated from the basement level.   At around 8:00 on the morning of March 27, 1956 a three-alarm blaze broke out there, resulting in injuries to two firefighters.  The New York Times reported, "The bulk of the damage to the building, once a gathering place for Hitler sympathizers, was confined to the cellar."

The Yorkville Casino in 1946.  original source unknown

Even in the second half of the century the Yorkville Casino was the scene of German and Hungarian celebrations and meetings.  On the night of March 11, 1962 about 1,500 persons attended the March Freedom Festival of the American Hungarian Federation.  The event commemorated the Hungarian revolt against the Hapsburgs in 1848, "but there were many references at the meeting to the popular uprising in Hungary against the Communist leadership in 1956," said The New York Times.

A much less ethnic-based event occurred here on March 19, 1964 when supporters of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater's run for President held a "Youth for Goldwater" hootenanny.  The New York Times reported it would feature "conservative folk singing and other festivities."

The Yorkville Casino closed in 1964.  In 1967 the building was given a major remodeling that resulted in a motion picture theater on the first and second floors and offices above.  Today no hint of the Yorkville Casino remains, its limestone and brick facade replaced by glass and steel.

photo via has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. Ah yes, the 1960s ... when the race was on to strip away ornamentation and give every building the no fuss, International Architecture look. It is probably more practical, but it's not more interesting.

    Having said that -- the building to the right of 210 - 214 East 86th is good looking and relatively new. It's not there in the 1946 photo (one story building with sign that says: Books).

  2. Stripped away all the character—why I don't remember it at all. Walked by this address a lot before I moved to Brooklyn Heights in 1968.

    When I worked at 10 East 40th Street in the mid-60s, they'd replaced the heavily ornamented lobby ceiling with drop-down white panels with inset fluorescent lights, which I am happy to say have since been removed, allowing the old splendor of the ceiling decorations to reappear.

  3. Remodeling is much too kind, butchering is more like it. While the 1960's were hard on NYC architecture, such practices continue to this day, removing community landmarks that provide historical context to ones environment, stripping away the vibrancy from neighborhoods and the emotional links people have to places, events and each other. The resulting neighborhood streetscape and NYC in general is inferior for it.