Friday, October 7, 2022

The HB Playwrights - 124 Bank Street


Hard to believe, the building originally was a match to the house to the right.

In June 1884 the heirs of Robert J. Houghton sold the family house at 124 Bank Street to William Doughtery for $9,000.  Built around 1837, the three-story, brick-faced house was one of a charming row.  Doughtery had other plans for the vintage house, however.  On March 20, 1891, his architect, Charles Rentz, Jr., filed plans for altering the ground floor for commercial purposes.  An one-story extension was erected to the rear, the interior walls reconfigured, and the ground floor converted to a workshop.

An advertisement that year read: "124 Bank St.--Shop and Dwelling, eight rooms, rent $1,300."  The commercial portion became home to A. C. Burdette's West Side Machinery Depot.  The firm's ad in March 1892 offered, "Gas engines, electric motors, dynamos, ceiling and exhaust fans, new and second hand; repairing a specialty."  

The building was renovated again following its purchase by Henry and Herman Thalmann.  (Interestingly, Herman routinely dropped the second "n" from his surname, using both spellings.)  The father and son ran a livery stable on West 10th Street, and now looked to open another.

In April 1895, the Thalmanns hired well-known architect Martin V. B. Ferdon to convert the building into a stable.  A floor was added to the rear extension, iron beams installed, and a wide carriage bay put in place.  The upper floors held residential spaces for stable employees.  The renovations cost the Thalmanns the equivalent of $67,000 in 2022.

Living upstairs was a worker named Roberts and his wife, Hattie.  On the night of June 23, 1897 the couple were riding bicycles on Eighth Avenue.  Bicycling, or "wheeling," was a national craze and the riders vied with other vehicles on the avenue.  As the Roberts neared 21st Street, they were next to the carriage of Frank Ennis and his wife.  Suddenly the coachman veered "toward the middle of the avenue to avoid running down a wheelman who was riding west on Twenty-first street," according to The Sun.  "Mrs. Roberts was knocked off her wheel by the collision and was severely bruised."  Despite the unnerving incident, Hattie Roberts refused to make a complaint against the coachman "and went home with her husband."

The stable venture was successful, and in 1898 a third Thalmann stable was opened at 129 Charles Street.  Henry moved his family into the upper portion, where he died on March 11, 1900.  A month later Herman sold the Bank Street stable to James H. Newman.

Newman purchased the building for investment purposes.  On April 22 he advertised, "Stable and Dwelling; five stalls and trunk room, 124 Bank st; desirable."  Over the coming years he leased the stable to several tenants, one of the last being George Cassel, who signed a lease in June 1915.

In 1921, following Newman's death, his estate sold the property to Richard Rogers.  He, too, made renovations--his reflecting the dwindling number of horses in the city.  The ground floor was now listed as a garage, the second floor a "stable and dwelling," and the third floor had living quarters.

With each purchaser had come remodeling, none more overwhelming that when Bridget Rogers sold the building to the Kansas Packing Company in August 1936 for $5,500 (about $108,000 t0day).  The firm, which was located a few blocks away at 822 Greenwich Street, needed a garage, but not the residential space above.  By the end of 1937, the upper floors had been chopped off.  The now single-story building received a new brick facade with a stepped pediment with inset brick diamonds that harkened to the Arts & Crafts period of a generation earlier.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services

The Kansas Packing Company used the building until February 1941, when it leased it to the A. Milne Steel Company.  Another change was in the oft-converted building's future.

In 1945 Austrian-born actor and director Herbert Berghof founded the HB studio, one of Manhattan's original acting studios.  He was joined in the venture in 1948 by actress Uta Hagen, and the couple was married in 1959.  The following year they purchased and renovated the building at 120 Bank Street for the studio.

Then, in 1965, Berghof and Hagen bought garage at 124 Bank Street, converting it into a 73-seat performance space known as HB Playwrights.  Over the decades the students within the two addresses compile a seemingly non-ending list of theatrical Who's Who.  They include Lee Grant, Eli Wallach, Jo Van Fleet, Hal Holbrook, Harvey Korman, E. G. Marshall, Geraldine Page, Jack Lemmon, George Segal, Gene Wilder, Maureen Stapleton, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, and on and on.

The innocuous, theatrically historic building continues to be a venue for productions, readings and lectures.
photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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