Webster Hall’s First Ball (of many)
Webster Hall at 125 East 11th street has a remarkable past. Started as a social club in 1887, it is without a doubt one of New York’s most famous gathering spots. And that long history of bringing people together under one roof had a pretty auspicious start.
In February of 1887, the new protected cruiser USS Atlanta, commissioned in 1886 from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, set sail under Capt. Francis M. Bunce, its first commanding officer. Its destination: a grand ball to celebrate its launch at Webster Hall, followed by visits to various points along the Atlantic coast. That party, which included the crew of the ship and 900 of their distinguished guests, took place on February 11, 1887, marking the beginning of the long and storied history of one of New York City’s most culturally significant assembly halls.
Webster Hall was originally constructed for Charles Goldstein in 1886-87 and designed by the architect Charles Rentz, Jr. (in an amusing side note, the famous Rentz was said to have been not only a renowned architect, but also a beer dealer!) Charles Goldstein, a Polish cigar maker, commissioned the construction of the building, the annex to which he and his family lived in until his death. First operated as a “hall for hire,” it was rented out for various events, soirees, and personal gatherings.
Throughout its history as one of Greenwich Village/East Village’s leading public rental halls and social centers, Webster Hall continued to be the venue for countless balls, dances, receptions, lectures, meetings, conventions, political and union rallies, military functions, concerts, performances, festivities, and sporting and fundraising events, particularly for the working-class and immigrant populations of the Lower East Side.
In the 1910s and 20s, it became famous for its masquerade balls, following the success of a 1913 fundraiser for the socialist magazine The Masses, first attracting the Village’s bohemian population, which nicknamed it the “Devil’s Playhouse.” The hall was significant as a gathering place for the city’s early twentieth-century lesbian and gay community, who felt welcome to attend the balls in drag, and then sponsored their own events by the 1920s. Among the many notables who attended events here at this time were artists Charles Demuth, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray, as well as writers Djuna Barnes, Langston Hughes, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Webster Hall was also a favorite venue for progressive/leftist political organizations and unions. The hall attractedy such luminaries as Samuel Gompers, Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, and Dorothy Day, and was the site of the formation of the Progressive Labor Party in 1887, and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1914.
Noted as one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, the designation report for the Landmarks Preservation Commission describes the facade as being designed “…in an eclectic Queen Anne style, featured three vertical sections flanked by monumental pilasters, large window groups on the third story (round-arched in the center), a modillioned cornice, and a complex roofline consisting of sections of mansard roof on each end having elaborate, pedimented and scrolled dormers, and a central mansard tower rising above a large decorative plaque with a scroll bearing the name “Webster Hall” surmounted by a sunburst pediment. 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.”
Webster Hall closed its doors in 2017 for a full restoration, the first in its 133-year history, with the intent of upgrading a famed music hall without losing its iconic features. It reopened to the public in April of 2019.
Village Preservation was instrumental in gaining landmark status for the building in 2007, and so its exterior was prevented from any substantial change. Inside the hall, however, improvements were made by replacing timber beams with steel to strengthen the structure, and restoring the marble staircase and herringbone floors. Workers also abated the entire roof, adding structural steel to support new mechanical equipment, which includes a long-needed elevator for both equipment and the handicapped.
Many new elements were added to the venue at that time including dressing rooms, four staircases, sprinkler and fire alarm systems, air conditioning, a lobby bar, and a street-level entrance. The changes greatly improved access.
While we are currently experiencing a hiatus on “in-person” concert events due to the ongoing public health situation, you can only imagine that the ghosts of Webster Hall are aching for adoring fans to return and rock the place to its foundation! We are certainly looking forward to those days.