|Webster Hall, NYC pre-1920|
Webster Hall (The Ritz) was originally built in 1886 by architect Charles Rentz in the Queen Anne style and topped with an elaborate mansard roof. Webster Hall is one of New York City's most historically significant theater and event halls, having hosted social events of all types since the club's construction in 1886.
Webster Hall was constructed for Charles Goldstein in 1886-87, who operated the hall and also lived in the Annex with his family until his death in 1898 – the building was a "hall for hire" from its inception.
The Queen Anne style original structure and Renaissance Revival style Annex are clad in red Philadelphia pressed brick with brownstone trim, and effusively ornamented with unglazed red terra cotta, that on the original building was likely produced by the Boston Terra Cotta Co. or Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Co., the leading manufacturers of the day. The building is terminated by a c. 1911 bracketed pressed metal cornice, and had an elaborate, high dormered mansard roof until it was destroyed by fire in 1930.
Though little known, the highly prolific Rentz (1855- 1906) practiced in New York from around 1880 to his death, and was commissioned largely for flats and tenement buildings.
Since 1886 the people of New York have used Webster Hall to gather in a notorious display of exhibitionism, consumption, and debauchery. Webster Hall was described as the "Jewel of the Village" by Eugene O'Neil. It was where the original bohemians, like Emma Goldman, Marcel DuChamp and Margaret Sangor, created unique costume balls to benefit nascent social and political causes.
Based upon the bacchanals in Paris and called such names as the "Blind Man's Ball," "The Pagan Rout", and "The Futurist Ball" they created the reputation of Greenwich Village which exists today. As Floyd Dell recalled,"they were spontaneously joyous and deliberately beautiful, focusing in a mood of playfulness the passion for loveliness which was one of the things that brought us to the village." It was the birth of the modern nightclub.(4)
Six years later in 1892, Rentz was hired to design an addition to the building, occupying the site of 125 East 11th Street and designed in the Renaissance Revival style using the same materials as the original building.
By the turn of the century Webster Hall had become know to all as "The Devil's Playground".
The first decade or so of Webster Hall's existence saw it host countless labor union rallies, weddings, meetings, lectures, dances, military functions, concerts, fundraisers and other events, particularly focused on the working-class and immigrant population of the surrounding Lower East Side neighborhood during its early years. Although it also hosted many high-society functions catering to the uppertens of the city, the hall earned a reputation as a gathering place for leftist, socialist, anarchist and labor union activity very early on.
Throughout the early twentieth century the building was plagued by fires, which occurred in 1902, 1911, 1930, 1938, and 1949. The original mansard roof was likely lost in one these fires.
In the 1910s and 20s, Webster Hall became known for its masquerade balls and other soirees reflecting the hedonism of the city's Bohemians. Nicknamed the "Devil's Playhouse" by the socialist magazine The Masses, Webster Hall became particularly known for the wilder and more risque events of the time; Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Stella, Man Ray, Francis Picabia, Charles Demuth, Scott Fitzgerald and many other notables regularly attended events there during this time.
The coming of Prohibition did not restrict the availability of alcohol at these events. Local politicians and police were said to turn a blind eye to the activities; at one time it was rumored that the venue was owned by the mobster Al Capone. The repeal of Prohibition was the reason for one of Webster Hall's biggest celebrations, "The Return of John Barleycorn."
In 1912, Emma Goldman, the outspoken exponent of Anarchism, free love and birth control, lead a march that brought the children of striking Lawrence, Massachusetts millworkers to the hall for a meal in order to dramatize the struggles of the working-class.
In 1916, it was used as the strike headquarters for the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union.
In 1920 meetings of the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee were also held at Webster Hall. Webster Hall hosted several Drag Balls during the 1920s. The events were wildly successful and it was one of the few times when transvestites were allowed to openly dress in drag. The events continued until the Great Depression(6)
|Drag Ball at Webster Hall, 1920's, Upper left corner sign, "Only one encore allowed"|
In the 1950s, Webster Hall began featuring concerts from a diverse group of artists. Latin performers, such as Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez played at the club. So, too, did folk artists Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Perry Como, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra all added to the list of stars that the venue had witnessed.
From 1953-1968 RCA Records, recognizing the acoustical integrity of the Grand Ballroom, purchased the building and began operating Webster Hall as their East Coast recording venue, Webster Hall Studios.
|RCA Studio at Webster Hall, 1960|
Carol Channing recorded Hello, Dolly! there, Harold Prince recorded Fiddler on the Roof, and artists such as Julie Andrews, Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Sergio Franchi, Peter Nero, Elvis Presley, and Frank Sinatra all recorded in the studio. Pop vocal, jazz, Latin, folk, and gospel phonograph albums were recorded here by such disparate musical icons as Louis Armstrong, Harry Belafonte, Perry Como, Coleman Hawkins, Lena Horne, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Stan Getz, Sergio Franchi, and Joe Williams. The hall was noted as a venue for Broadway cast recordings,
which included Julie Andrews in The Boy Friend, Mary Martin in Peter Pan, Barbara Cook in Show Boat, Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun, and Liza Minnelli in Flora, the Red Menace, as well as those of classical artists such as Artur Rubinstein, Marian Anderson, and Beverly Sills in Giulio Cesare.(5)
On February 2, 1962 Bob Dylan was recorded playing harmonica on the title track of Harry Belafonte's Midnight Special album, marking Dylan's recording debut. The Music Theatre of Lincoln Center albums of Broadway shows recorded between 1964 and 1969 were all made at Webster Hall, but without a live audience, and in 1966, the recording of Handel's Giulio Cesare starring Norman Treigle and Beverly Sills was recorded at the Hall for RCA.
On January 8, 1967, the Jefferson Airplane played an RCA promotional party at Webster Hall. Apparently, Mike Bloomfield and other members of the Butterfield Blues Band stepped onstage to jam as well.(7)
In 1970, Unity Gallega, also known as Casa Galicia of New York, purchased the site and remains the current owner of the property. Unity Gallega/Casa Galicia is a cultural organization representing people from Galicia, Spain in promoting and preserving their cultural ties.
On May 1st, 1980, The Ritz opened as the famous showcase venue for emerging rock acts.
The Ritz still retained some of its previous incarnation's Art Deco style. As a venue, it focused primarily on live performances, often of newer acts, but also featured dancing. The Ritz was one of the first clubs to incorporate video into the club experience.
Mainly due to concerns over their liquor licence, they relocated to a wonderful old Latin ballroom formerly known as the Gallo Theater, the larger 254 W.54th Street, the former home of Studio 54, in 1989.
In 1992 John Scher sold the property to Felix Carcano, who brought in Walter Durkacz of Wetlands fame. Its current incarnation was opened by the Ballinger Brothers in 1992.
The 11th Street location was reborn as a dance club, reverting back to its original name, Webster Hall.
In 1993, The Ritz moved to just off Eighth Avenue.
Jerry performed here on
1/27/86 Jerry Garcia Band
1/28/86 Jerry Garcia Band
1.)^Carlson, Jen (2007-08-14). "New Venue Alert: Terminal 5". Gothamist
2.)^"Webster Hall and Annex Designation Report", New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
3.)^Durniak, Drew. "Where Music and Passion are Always in Fashion". Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation
5.)^WEBSTER HALL and ANNEXth, 2008-03-18, Landmarks Preservation Commission
6.)^Chauncey, George, Gay New York
7.)^Arnold, Corry, 2012-05-11, Comments