New York City’s Webster Hall is a functional monument. In its 128 year long history, the venue has evolved and changed while retaining its character and status as one of the city’s premier cultural centers. It’s a contradiction between the outside and the inside, the former linking back to the old British ideals of formality and the latter filling itself with forward thought and debauchery. It is a place that is unassuming until it is uncorked, a battle ground against the mainstream that helped define a culture now so integral to the landscape of NYC.
To understand Webster Hall fully, it must first be placed in its neighborhood, the East Village. The East Village developed into itself starting with a series of cholera and yellow fever outbreaks in lower Manhattan between 1799 and 1822. The disease led to a large influx of people, spurring growth in the previously undeveloped area. The development caused the East Village to become one of the more fashionable places to live in the entire city, with many affluent families taking up residence there. This all changed during the 1850s when commercial enterprises and fresh immigrants began making their way to the area, trading the affluent heyday for industrial grit.
The Lower East Side became known as Kleindeutschland (“Little Germany”) during this time and would become the leading center of German-American identity throughout the next century. The German population was complimented by a massive influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe establishing their own cultural and religious institutions on the Lower East Side. These new populations developed the area, building opera houses, music academies, concert halls, and various other social gathering spaces.
Included in this outgrowth was the construction of the infamous Webster Hall in 1886. The building was designed by Charles Rentz Jr., a little known architect whose main contributions to the NYC landscape were flats and tenements. The facade of the building was adorned in the Queen Anne style, an English Baroque style of architecture that returned to fashion during the late 1800s throughout the United States. This fancy style was complemented by a beautiful mansard roof with a prominent center-tower overlooking the street below. It resembled a palace of sorts, a residency filled with tea time, big dresses and zero discussion of politics.
This old-society exterior of Webster Hall was quickly contrasted by what occurred inside. The German and Jewish community used the space to serve their own unorthodox cultural and political needs. It became an epicenter for radical political thought with early leftist pioneers like Samuel Gompers, Emma Goldman, and Dorothy Day all attending political events at the hall. It was also the formation site of the Progressive Labor Party in 1887 and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1914. An article published in 1888 by Brooklyn Daily Eagle shows the immediate reputation for the hall as a gathering space for leftist political elements:
Webster Hall… is a big, bare, dingy place, where all the year round discontented men meet to discuss their wrongs and sympathize with one another, and where secret societies and political organizations, labor unions and similar associations make a business of pleasure. It is a grimy neighborhood, where the rattle of trade continues all day and leaves poverty to toss itself to sleep at nightfall. There are more children in this section of New York City than live on an area of equal extent in any other part of America.
During the 1910s and 20s, the venue became famous throughout the city for its masquerade balls. These parties were wild events with drinking, dancing, extravagant costumes and a wide range of bohemian people all celebrating until five in the morning. The place garnered such a reputation for decadence that it became widely known as the “Devil’s Playhouse.” These events started to appeal to people outside the area, drawing in richer crowds from around the city who wanted a genuine taste of bohemian culture and partying. The place also became a gathering space for artists during this time, most interestingly hosting a prohibition-era liquor party called “The Blind Man’s Ball” in protest of the Society of Independent Artists’ refusal to display Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” in their exhibition. Duchamp himself attended the event, one of many great artists to pass through the balls during this time.
Webster Hall’s most significant contribution to New York culture during this early era, however, may be its position as a center for expression of gay culture. Webster Hall was seen as a favored space for the city’s gay population because of the openness and acceptance of the crowds and the expressive nature of the events. Gay people felt welcome to attend the balls in full drag and by 1920s they were also hosting their own events. Historian George Chauncey remarked:
Organizers of the balls… welcomed the presence of flamboyant gay men – sometimes making them a part of the pageants they staged – precisely because they enhanced the reputation and appeal of such events….By the early 1920s, the presence of gay men and lesbians in the Village was firmly established. No longer were they simply visitors to the Liberal Club’s masquerade balls. They organized their own balls at Webster Hall and appropriated as their own many of the other social spaces created by the bohemians of the 1910s.
Webster Hall continued its place as a radical social and political gathering space up until the fire of 1949 (there were several fires in Webster Hall’s history, including one in 1930, destroying the mansard roof, never to be replaced). In the year 1953, RCA Victor Records established a recording studio in the space that came to be one of the most significant studios of the 50s and 60s. The large scale of the space lent it well to Jazz and Broadway recordings, putting down sessions for iconic artists including Louis Armstrong, Harry Belafonte, Stan Getz, Julie Andrews and Ethel Merman. Throughout this time the hall still functioned as a place to host events and boasted folk music “hootenannies,” a visit by Robert F. Kennedy during is NY senate race and Jefferson Airplane’s first New York performance in 1967.
The 70s and 80s saw a return to the more traditional roots of Webster Hall. It functioned a restaurant and event space called Casa Galacia and held a seminal concert in 1978 that was said to be a major part in the revival of Jewish klezmer music. From 1980-1989 the space functioned as a rock club called The Ritz which hosted powerhouse performers like Madonna, Prince, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner, Sting, Kiss, and B.B. King. The club was one of the first designed with a video component that would later become a trend in clubs nationwide. It was used as a film site for the classic 80s movies Raging Bull and Big as well.
Since 1990, Webster Hall has operated in its current incarnation. It has become one of New York’s premier sites for raves and electronic music with the weekly events House Party on Thursdays, Girls & Boys on Fridays, and Brite Nites on Saturdays hosting both big-name and underground DJs. Justice, Deadmau5, Disclosure, and A-Trak have all played the events. The venue’s multiple stages also showcase some of the most influential musicians today as well as up and coming artists that are making waves across the music world.
This modern center of music and culture in New York seems to be a culmination of all the history of this old building. The raves of today garner back to the masquerade balls of the early 1900s while the traditional concerts are a testament to the deep recording and performing history of the building. Webster Hall was granted landmark status in 2008 because of it’s architecture and rich history. If you are someone who lives in New York, this is a functional museum of culture that one should soak up when given the opportunity. While you’re there dancing and drinking till the sun comes up with Snails and Apashe, you’ll be in the company of some high-cultured, radical ghosts.
Sources: the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission report on Webster Hall, The Bowery Boys podcast on Webster Hall, and the Webster Hall official website
Ben Levine is originally from Rockford, Illinois. He recently moved to Los Angeles after spending a year and half in the Israel Defense Forces. He has a degree in Russian and Religious Studies and enjoys hotdogs, Iceland, and live performance of all kinds. Follow him on Twitter @levineb and Instagram @tread_endznor.