Just last week the famed Copacabana nightclub reopened yet again. At its newest incarnation at Times Square, guests were treated to an opening night performance by salsa great Willie Colón. One of the most recognizable names in nightclub history, the Copa opened its doors in 1940 at its original location at 10 East 60th Street. Over the years it hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Tito Puente, and Celia Cruz among countless other music notables. By the mid-1970s it transformed itself into a discothèque (as Barry Manilow can tell you), and after a series of openings and closings in new locations, in 2007 it was forced out of its last home at 34th Street and 11th Avenue to make way for the extension of the 7 subway line. Its new home in Times Square will offer a new generation the chance to participate in a 70-year-old tradition of dancing the night away.
But far from the pulsing lights of Times Square, a dancehall in our neighborhood has been keeping that tradition going for an incredible 125 years!
Webster Hall on East 11th Street between 3rd and 4th Avenues has been home to dancing and so much more over its incredible lifespan. From the start, Webster Hall was a “hall for hire” where groups could rent either certain rooms in the building or the entire space for whatever functions they chose. In 1886, the New York Times noted that the hall was “intended for balls, receptions, Hebrew weddings, and sociables.” By the turn of the twentieth century, the area near and south of Union Square was packed with large and small structures housing theaters, dance halls, and other forms of entertainment, but today very few of these buildings remain intact or are not used for their original purpose.
Webster Hall was designed in 1886 by architect Charles Rentz in the Queen Anne style and topped with an elaborate mansard roof. 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 a Renaissance Revival style using the same materials as the original building. 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.
The spaces at Webster Hall were always popular places for gatherings of the working class, whether it was for union rallies or for evening entertainment, and were the site of significant events in social and labor history. In 1888, the Brooklyn Eagle described Webster Hall as “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.” The hall hosted notable figures including labor leader Samuel Gompers, who visited the Hall for a meeting of striking brewery workers in 1888, and social activists like Emma Goldman and Dorothy Day. The founding convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America also took place at the hall in December 1914.
By the 1910s and 1920s, Webster Hall became famous for its masquerade balls, following the success of a 1913 fundraiser for the socialist magazine The Masses. The parties, which attracted the bohemians of the Village and beyond, grew more and more outlandish–and the costumes, skimpier and skimpier. Although Prohibition could have killed the momentum of the parties, in fact, it had the opposite effect. As liquor consumption was driven underground, Webster Hall became a speakeasy, and the legends of the parties grew. Gay and lesbian Villagers first attended the parties of accepting organizations like the Liberal Club, but by the mid-1920s were putting together dances and celebrations of their own at the hall. These celebrations were able to continue without harassment, as long as the police were paid off properly. When Prohibition was finally repealed, a large ball called the “Return of John Barleycorn,” was thrown on New Year’s Eve to celebrate.
By the end of the 1950s, RCA converted the building into their East Coast recording studio and called it the “Webster Hall Studios.” Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, and Julie Andrews all sang at the studios, and several musicals, including Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof, were also recorded here.
Webster Hall reemerged on May 1, 1980 as The Ritz nightclub, and until its relocation in 1986, it was a leading venue for rock shows in New York City. The roster of Ritz performers included, Madonna, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Prince, Sting, Guns N’ Roses, KISS, among many others. In 1990 the building was purchased by the Ballinger Family from Toronto, and returned the Webster Hall name to the reborn dance club and concert venue which remains today.
As real estate development pressure grew exponentially in the East Village during the 2000s, and historic sites like St. Ann’s church just one block north were lost to out-of-scale developments, GVSHP and others saw the need to protect the scale and character of many of the East Village’s unique historic structures. In the summer of 2007 GVSHP supplied the Landmarks Preservation Commission with extensive research on the history of Webster Hall, and urged the LPC to landmark the site. Shortly thereafter the LPC commissioners voted to consider the building for landmark designation and in spring 2008 the building was officially designated a New York City landmark, recognizing its extraordinary role in the cultural development of the Village.