Honoring and Preserving 101 Avenue A, Home of the Pyramid Club

On October 30, 2007, GVSHP submitted a request to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission that they consider 101 Avenue A (6th/7th Streets) in the East Village as an individual New York City landmark. The request attracted quite a bit of attention, and was soon referred to as a push to make the building New York City’s first “drag landmark.”

Hyperbole aside, the building had many unique and compelling layers which strongly appealed to us.  Built in 1876, 101 Avenue A was designed by German-born William Jose, a prolific and unsung tenement house architect whose work had a great visual impact upon the immigrant neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan.  Jose pulled out all the stops for this “tenement” design, which features lyrical and elaborate ironwork, florid incised neo-Grec detailing on its lintels and a vibrant interplay of colors and materials on its facade.  Aesthetics aside, the nearly century and a half old building almost continuously housed a social gathering space in its ground floor — first a social and labor union hall, which was a center for the local German-American community, and later as a seminal performance space for the likes of Rupaul, Madonna and Nirvana, as well as a burgeoning politically-conscious drag performance art scene that emerged from the East Village in the 1980s.  Oh, and Nico of Velvet Undergorund fame lived here during her tenure with the band.

From the October 30, 2007 letter:

 While such popular social/entertainment halls were commonplace in what is now the East Village in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, almost none still exist or retain a continuous common use as does 101 Avenue A. Kern’s Hall was the first of these halls to open at 101 Avenue A in 1876, and was followed by Shultz’s Hall, Fritz’s Hall, and most famously, Leppig’s Hall. Leppig’s proprietors, John Leppig and his son, also named John Leppig, were leaders of their community, both having served as the unofficial “Mayor of Avenue A.”

NYTimes 1879

Leppig’s closed in the 1930s, but by the 1960s the space was home to a series of performance spaces and cultural centers, which reflected the East Village’s evolution from an ethnic enclave to a worldwide center of cultural ferment. It was also at this time that underground music icon and Warhol superstar Nico lived upstairs at 101 Avenue A, while she was performing with the Velvet Underground.  In 1979 the present occupant, the Pyramid Club, opened in the ground floor of the building.

The letter continues:

In the 1960s, as the immigrant neighborhood of the East Village was being discovered by Bohemians and artists…the ground floor space had become a music venue, the East Village In. Although the name and the type of music played within the space has changed many times over the last four decades, the space has continued to be a music club. In 1972, an establishment called the Shipwreck was shut down by the Department of Health, and by the next year, the Jazzboat had opened in its place. Owned by a member of Duke Ellington’s band, Aziz Latif, the Jazzboat had jazz nightly in a space with a “spankingly new and attractive” ship-motif décor. The New Rican Village Cultural Center (Areyto Theater Lab) is listed as being at 101 Avenue A in 1979, although later that year, the current tenant, the Pyramid Club, opened in the space.

From www.thedragexplosion.com

The Pyramid Club was a defining club of the East Village scene in the 1980s, with avant-garde performers like Ann Magnuson, also of Club 57 fame, now guest curating an exhibit at the Moma.  GVSHP’s letter also stated:

Over the last 28 years, the Pyramid Club has been central to the downtown countercultural scene and hosted performances by up-and-coming artists including Madonna, Nirvana, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The club is also credited with playing a key role in nurturing influential cultural movements which emerged from the East Village in the 1980’s, including ‘performance art’ and a new wave of political and socially-conscious drag performance, led by the likes of the Lady Bunny, Lypsinka, and RuPaul. The Pyramid Club’s peers were a generation of performance venues that had an unusually broad impact upon the larger cultural
landscape, including CBGB’s, the Mudd Club, Area, and Danceteria, of which Pyramid is the sole present-day survivor….Legend has it that in the early 1980s, after partying at the Pyramid Club, a group of drag queens walked over to Tompkins Square Park and put on an impromptu outdoor festival which became the first
Wigstock Drag Festival.35 Over the next 20 years, Wigstock would become more formalized and would grow to be a major New York City event, attracting world-wide attention and participation….Madonna, who frequented the Pyramid Club, attended an early AIDS benefit there in 1986 for her former roommate and close friend, Martin Burgoyne. Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf were also in attendance at Burgoyne’s benefit, supporting their ailing friend at a time when misinformation about the disease pervaded the American public and it “had become a plague in the bohemian neighborhoods of downtown Manhattan.”37 In addition to performance art, cabaret, theater, and dancing, the Pyramid Club hosted live bands.38 Several up and coming artists who would dominate mainstream music in the 1990s played their first New York City shows at the Pyramid Club, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who played in 1984, and Nirvana, who played in 1989. 

In its heyday in the early 1980s, the New York Times wrote of the Pyramid Club “There is nothing quite like this club anywhere in New York, and it adheres to no formulas. In fact, it is more like the Paris boites of the 50s or the speak-easies of the 20s than anything else” and “If your navy blue trademark is your hair, not your suit, you might prefer the live bands and progressive sounds featured at the Pyramid Club.”

In 2011, GVSHP successfully pushed to have the city’s proposed East Village/Lower East Side Historic District boundaries expanded to include 101 Avenue A (among other sites), and in 2012 that district was approved, including 101 Avenue A.

This year the Pyramid Club was listed in Curbed New York’s top ten of NYC Pride: 25 historic LGBTQ sites to visit.  101 Avenue A also appears on GVSHP’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map with more than a hundred other local sites.  And right now Clayton Patterson has an exhibit “Portraits From the Pyramid” taken of performers in the 80’s at the legendary club.

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Harry Bubbins