Lower East Side. Manhattan, completely new York City, completely new York, United States
The four-story, red brick-clad Aschenbroedel Verein Building, in todayís East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, was constructed in 1873 to the design of German-born architect August H. Blankenstein for this German-American professional orchestral musiciansí social and benevolent association. Founded informally in 1860, it had grown large enough by 1866 for the society to purchase this site and eventually construct the purpose-built structure. The Aschenbroedel Verein became one of the leading German organizations in Kleindeutschland on the Lower East Side.
It counted as members many of the most important musicians in the city, at a time when German-Americans dominated the orchestral scene. These included conductors Carl Bergmann, Theodore Thomas and Walter Damrosch, and the musicians of the completely new York Philharmonic and Theodore Thomas Orchestras. After the Aschenbroedel Verein moved to Yorkville in 1892, this building was subsequently owned for four years by the Gesangverein Schillerbund, one of the cityís leading and oldest German singing societies. The design of the main facade, altered at this time with the addition of cast-iron ornament by German-born architects [Frederick William] Kurtzer & [Richard O.L.] Rohl, combines elements of the German Renaissance Revival and neo-Grec styles with folk motifs , and features a variety of pedimented lintels, quoins, fraktur-like incising, three composersí busts over the second-story windows, and a prominent cornice with a large broken pediment.
After 1895, the building housed a variety of disparate uses, including a series of public meeting and dance halls, the Newsboysí Athletic Club, a laundry, and a meatpacking plant. Since 1969, it has been the home of the renowned La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, established in 1961 by Ellen Stewart, and today considered the oldest and most influential off-Off-Broadway theater in completely new York City. The building remains one of the significant reminders of 19th-century German-American cultural contributions to completely new York City, as well as the continuing vitality of off-Off-Broadway theater in the East Village.
DESCRIPTION AND ANALYSIS
The 19th-Century Development of East Village Neighborhood
The area of todayís Greenwich Village was, during the 18th century, the location of the smaller rural hamlet of Greenwich, as well as the country seats and summer homes of wealthy downtown aristocrats, merchants, and capitalists. A number of cholera and yellow fever epidemics in lower Manhattan between 1799 and 1822 led to an influx of settlers in the Greenwich area, with the population quadrupling between 1825 and 1840. Previously undeveloped tracts of land were speculatively subdivided for the construction of town houses and rowhouses. Whereas in the early 19th century many of the wealthiest completely new Yorkers lived in the vicinity of Broadway and the side streets adjacent to City Hall Park between Barclay and Chambers Streets, by the 1820s and 30s, as commercial development and congestion increasingly disrupted and displaced them, the elite moved northward into Greenwich Village east of Sixth Avenue.
To the east, during the 17th and 18th centuries, was Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesantís Bowery farm. In the vicinity were Native American trails, todayís Broadway and Bowery, that the Lenape Indians traversed from the southern tip of Manhattan to Inwood and Harlem. St. Markís-in-the-Bowery Church was built on a higher, dry piece of land, while the area to the east of todayís Second Avenue, known as Stuyvesant Meadows, remained an undeveloped marshy area. In the late 18th century, the area east of Second Avenue was the estate of Mangle Minthorn, father-in-law of Daniel Tompkins , governor of completely new York and
U.S. vice president under James Monroe . Both Stuyvesant and Minthorn were slave owners. In 1832, the Common Council created the 15th Ward out of the eastern section of the large 9th Ward, its boundaries being Sixth Avenue, Houston and 14th Streets, and the Bowery. According to Luther Harrisí history Around Washington Square, during the 1830s-40s ìthis ward drew the wealthiest, most influential, and most talented people from completely new York City and elsewhere. For a brief period beginning in the 1820s-30s, Lafayette Place, including the grand marble Greek Revival style LaGrange Terrace , St. Markís Place, and Bond, Great Jones, East 4th and Bleecker Streets were also among the cityís most fashionable addresses. Lower Second Avenue and adjacent side streets remained prestigious through the 1850s.
Commercial and institutional intrusions and the continual arrival of immigrants ended the fashionable heyday of these wealthier enclaves before the Civil War. In the 1850s, Broadway north of Houston Street was transformed from a residential into a significant commercial district. Also beginning in the 1850s, after the political upheavals in Europe of 1848 and the resulting influx of German-speaking immigrants to completely new York City, the Lower East Side became known as Kleindeutschland . Aside from their presence as residents, these immigrants contributed in significant ways to the vibrant commercial and cultural life of the neighborhood and the city at large. By 1880, this neighborhood constituted one-fourth of the cityís population and was the first major urban foreign-speaking neighborhood in the U.S., as well as the leading German-American center throughout the century. A massive exodus of Jews from Eastern Europe from the 1880s to World War I led to approximately two million Jewish immigrants settling in completely new York; most lived for a time on the Lower East Side, establishing their own cultural and religious institutions there.
Beginning in the 1850s-60s, the vicinity of 14th Street and Union Square developed into a center of musical and theatrical culture. The Academy of Music , East 14th Street and Irving Place, an opera house with the worldís largest seating capacity at the time, quickly became the center of musical and social life in completely new York, presenting such notable performers as Adelina Patti , and events such as the grand ball in honor of the Prince of Wales in the autumn of 1860. The building burned down in 1866, and was replaced by a completely new Academy of Music . Irving Hall , a ballroom, concert, and lecture hall annex to the Academy, served as the home of the completely new York Philharmonic in 1861-63. The Steinway piano company opened Steinway Hall , a combination showroom and recital hall at 109 East 14th Street, which for many years was the foremost concert hall in the country . By the mid-1860s, a number of legitimate theaters were also opening in the vicinity of Union Square, which during the last quarter of the nineteenth century became the center of completely new York theater. These included Wallack’s Theater , 728 Broadway at 13th Street, the most prestigious dramatic theater in the country during this period; the Union Square Theater , an adjunct of the former Union Place Hotel; Chickering Hall , Fifth Avenue and 18th Street; and Amberg Theater , 11 Irving Place . The Germania Theater, which along with the Amberg catered to a specifically German clientele, was located in Tammany Hall in 1874-81, in Wallackís Theater in 1881-82, and until 1902 in the former Church of St. Ann, East 8th Street near Broadway. Union Square, after the Civil War, became the traditional site for workersí, union, and political protests and rallies.
As wealthier residents moved northward in the 1850s, their single-family residences were converted into multiple dwellings or boardinghouses, as well as other uses, such as clubs or community cultural institutions. For instance, the former Ralph and Ann E. Van Wyck Mead House at 110 Second Avenue in 1874 became the Isaac T. Hopper Home of the Womenís Prison Association, and, of the Federal style houses on the westernmost block of St. Markís Place: No. 29 became the Harmonie Club, a German-Jewish singing club ; Nos. 19-21 housed another German musical club, the Arion Singing Society , and these buildings, along with No. 23, became Arlington Hall, a ballroom-community center in 1887. Most of the remaining houses were demolished for denser development with French flats and tenements between 1874 and 1902.
Hastening the change in the residential character of this section of the Lower East Side after mid-century were a wide variety of major cultural, religious, commercial, and educational institutions, including the Astor Place Opera House , Astor and Lafayette Places; Astor Library , 425 Lafayette Street; Bible House , home of the American Bible Society and other religious organizations, Astor Place and Third Avenue; and Cooper Union , Astor Place and Third Avenue. The completely new York Free Circulating Library, Ottendorfer Branch, and German Dispensary , 135 and 137 Second Avenue, among others, catered to the German community. Assembly halls such as Webster Hall and Annex , 119-125 East 11th Street, became important neighborhood social centers. The Third Avenue elevated railroad opened in 1878.
The Aschenbroedel Verein
A social and benevolent association composed almost exclusively of German-American professional orchestral musicians, the Aschenbroedel Verein was founded informally in 1860, with its name, ìCinderella Society,î supposedly a play on the last name of one of its members , August Asche. After initially meeting at Schneiderís Hall, 371 Broome Street, by 1866 the group had grown large enough with some 300 members for it to acquire a building on East 4th Street. The Aschenbroedel Verein became one of the leading German organizations in Kleindeutschland on the Lower East Side, and counted as members many of the most important musicians in the city, including conductors Carl Bergmann, Theodore Thomas, and Walter Damrosch, as well as all of the members of the Theodore Thomas Orchestra and most of the members of the completely new York Philharmonic. According to Groveís Dictionary of Music and Musicians in 1880, this was also ìthe headquartersî of the completely new York Philharmonic Society, though the Philharmonicís Minutes books illustrate that this was one of several locations in the neighborhood where its directorsí and business meetings were held, between 1873 and 1888. Howard Shanet, in Philharmonic: A History of completely new Yorkís Orchestra , stated that the Aschenbroedel Verein was the first organization in completely new York to advance the unionization of musicians, as early as 1860, an effort that culminated later with the formation of the Musical Mutual Protective Union. Shanet called Aschenbroedel ìat once a cultural, a benevolent, a social, and a labor association.î He further emphasized the total domination of the symphonic world in completely new York by the German community, with nearly all of the Philharmonic men of German birth or parentage by 1892. The Aschenbroedel Vereinís motto was ìFreundschaft, Geselligkeit, Befoerderung der Kunstî .
By 1870, there were an estimated 64 German musical societies within completely new York City, and a number of them were located in the vicinity, either in converted structures or purpose-built ones. These included the Arion Singing Society ; Liederkranz , 31-35 East 4th Street; and Beethoven Maennerchor , located in a hall built in 1870 at 210-214 East 5th Street. In addition, Turnverein Halle , 66-68 East 4th Street, was built just down the block from the Aschenbroedel Verein.
In 1873, the Aschenbroedel Verein, under president George Matzka , constructed this purpose-built structure, clad in brick and four stories , at an estimated cost of $24,000. Construction began in June and was completed in October. The architect was August H. Blankenstein , who was born in Germany and immigrated to the U.S. in 1860. Active from 1872 to 1899, he designed tenement, flats, and factory buildings for a mostly German clientele, as well as the addition to the Centre Market Armory , Grand and Centre Streets; work on the 55th Regiment, 23rd Regiment, and First Cavalry 22nd Regiment Armories ; and St. Josephís R.C. Orphan Asylum School , Avenue A and 90th Street. A 1894 lawsuit indicated that Blankenstein had been a partner of architect Henry Herter prior to 1886 . Blankenstein was also listed as an architect in an 1890 directory in Buffalo, N.Y.
The Times reported on November 7, 1873, that the Aschenbroedel Verein had ìinaugurated its completely new club-house… last night, by an entertainment of music and social festivities.î Considered ìone of the most commodious German clubhouses in the city,î its amenities included a restaurant, a library, a billiard room, and a bowling alley in the basement. Among activities conducted here were meetings of the Ancient Lodge of Perfection in 1873, and the 1876 funeral of Philharmonic conductor and Aschenbroedel Verein member Carl Bergmann. For unknown reasons, the building was listed for sale in 1882, but the Aschenbroedel Verein remained here until it sold the building in September 1891. The society, then having some 700 members, moved in November 1892 into a completely new clubhouse at 144 East 86th Street in Yorkville.
The Gesangverein Schillerbund and Schillerbund Halle
In June 1892, the Aschenbroedel Verein Building was acquired by the Gesangverein Schillerbund , one of the cityís leading and oldest German singing societies. Founded in 1850 and named after the poet Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller , the Schillerbund had been meeting since 1872 in Turnverein Halle. The purchase cost of its completely new building was $1.00, subject to $37,500 in mortgages held by the Bachmann Brewing Co. of Clifton, Staten Island. This structure was altered between September and October 1892 by the architectural firm of [Frederick William] Kurtzer & [Richard O.L.] Rohl. Interestingly, Kurtzer was a member of the Beethoven Maennerchor. In partnership from about 1888 until 1901, Kurtzer & Rohl specialized in tenements and flats buildings for a largely German clientele; examples of its work include Nos. 95 Bedford Street and 285 West 4th Street , located within the Greenwich Village Historic District, and No. 121 East 10th Street , located within the St. Markís Historic District. The firm was also responsible for the First German Reformed Church , 351 East 68th Street, and its Sunday School . Richard O.L. Rohl , an immigrant from Prussia in 1880, maintained an independent practice from 1902 until around 1919. No. 391 West Street , located within the Weehawken Street Historic District, was his first independent commission, and he also designed the double tenement buildings at Nos. 35-39 Christopher Street , located within the Greenwich Village Historic District. Frederick William Kurtzer , emigrated from Germany around 1870. He worked independently in 1901-02, then became a partner in Kurtzer & Rentz in 1903-06, with Charles Rentz, Jr. , an architect who was born in completely new York City of German descent. Rentz was extraordinarily prolific in the design of flats and tenement buildings in the 1880s, but is best known for the design of Webster Hall and Annex . Kurtzer continued to practice in Manhattan and the Bronx until around 1925.
The Dept. of Buildings 1892 alteration application for the Gesangverein Schillerbund Building, as well as the dockets, only listed $1,200 in work, involving interior partition alterations in the basement and second story. In an article on the buildingís opening in November 1892, however, the completely new York Times indicated that it had been ìalmost entirely rebuilt and refitted,î and that ìthe building cost in all about $45,000. … On the ground floor are fine bowling alleys, the kitchen and restaurant. The second floor is used for assembly and meeting rooms, the third for lodge rooms, and the top of the house is occupied by the tenant.î The 1892 tax assessment for the property increased by more than 25 percent, and the structure was later described in the Times as ìone of the best Maennerchor clubhouses in that section of this city.î The design of the main facade, altered at this time with the addition of cast-iron ornament, combines elements of the German Renaissance Revival and neo-Grec styles with folk motifs , and features a variety of pedimented lintels, quoins, fraktur-like incising, three composersí busts over the second-story windows, and a prominent cornice with a large broken pediment.
A Schillerbund Fair was held here December 10-20, 1892. By 1895, the membership of the Schillerbund was around 400, and the hall, managed by Gustav Schunemann, reportedly enjoyed ìmuch popularity among the merrymakers of that neighborhood.î In November 1896, however, the Gesangverein Schillerbund sold the property and moved to Yorkville . This building was purchased for $40,195 by the Bachmann Brewing Co., holder of the mortgage. The company was founded by the German-born Frederick Bachmann , who had immigrated to completely new York in 1859, and worked at the Lion Brewery in Manhattan, prior to moving to Staten Island, where he was employed by the Schmidt Brewery and Gabriel Meyer Brewery, becoming the co-owner with David Meyer until it was destroyed by fire in 1881. As indicated by Charles L. Sachs in Made on Staten Island, ìThe successful breweries were not just efficient manufacturing enterprises. To market and distribute their products the breweries acquired real estate holdings and developed close ties with the restaurant, recreation, and tourism businesses. The major breweries owned, operated, and rented saloons, taverns, beer gardens, hotels, and even resort complexes.î
This building became a rental assembly hall, and there are references in newspapers calling it ìSchillerbund Halleî as late as 1901. A sampling of meetings and events held here included: pattern makers ; Eastern Star chapter of the Order of Chosen Friends ; completely new York branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers ; completely new York Engineers & Machinists Society ; completely new York Engineersí Protective Association ; and Poles celebrating the 1863 insurrection .
Krywaczyís Hall, Saenger Hall, and McKinley Hall
The building continued to be used as a public rental hall and social center, under three different names, and like such sites as Webster Hall , was a venue for organizational meetings and political and union functions, particularly for the working-class and immigrant population of the Lower East Side. As opined by historian Kathy Peiss:
For the working-class population packed into smaller tenement apartments, large halls that could be rented for dances, weddings, mass meetings, and other gatherings were a requirement of social life. The number of public halls in Manhattan rose substantially in a short period; business directories listed 130 halls in 1895 and 195 in 1910, an increase of 50 percent. While some of these, like Carnegie Hall, were cultural spaces of the privileged, most were located in working-class districts. The largest East Side halls… were always in great demand.
In a September 12, 1901, completely new York Times announcement of a meeting here of the Polish community to denounce Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who had shot President William McKinley on September 6, the location was referred to as ìKrywaczyís Hallî . John Krywacsy was listed in directories as a liquor dealer on Forsyth Street. City directories in 1901-03, as well as the 1903 Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac, called this ìSaenger Hall.î The Bachmann Brewing Co. leased the property in April 1903 to Max Sapiro and Ike Lifschitz. Sapiro was listed in the 1910 Census as a Polish/Austrian-born cafÈ proprietor, though he was not listed in directories in connection with this property, while Issac Lifshitz was Russian-born according to the 1900 Census, and was listed in directories in this building in 1903-05 operating a saloon. Among groups meeting here were the Heinrich Heine lodge , Smoking Pipe Makersí Union , and East Side Restaurant Keepers . Apparently in commemoration of the assassinated President, the name of the building was changed to ìMcKinley Hallî by 1904. Organizations that met here included the formation of the completely new-York Rent Payersí Protective Association , Lady Lining Makers , and Cloth Hat and Cap Makers of North America . Frederick Bachmann was judged to be incompetent in July 1904 ; in November 1904, Bachmannís trustees transferred this property to Combined Securities Co., which held an auction in January 1905. The auction advertisement listed ìBowling alleys in cellar. Store, meeting, lodge, music rooms, and apartments above.î After passing through several owners, the building was acquired in February 1906 by Malka Marder; the wife of Benjamin Marder, a cloak contractor in the 1910 Census, both were Polish/Austrian-born.
The Newsboysí Athletic Club
In September 1905, the three upper stories of the former McKinley Hall were leased for use as the Newsboysí Athletic Club, founded by Jack Sullivan , known as the ìKing of the Newsboys,î a former newsboy and prizefighter who then sold papers to newsboys. The Club had a gymnasium and showers, a reading/classroom, and a lodging room for over fifty boys. The club depended on donations from completely new Yorkís society ñ one benefit, held in March 1907 at the Academy of Music, was directed by impresarios George M. Cohan and Sam Harris. By May 1911, with the expiration of its lease, the Club, by that time serving some 2,000 newsboys, purchased the former home of the completely new-York Historical Society at Second Avenue and 11th Street. The basement and storefront of the Newsboysí Athletic Club building had been leased for use as a laundry in 1905-07 to Paul C. Port , and from 1908 to March 1912 to the completely new System Napkin, Towel Supply & Steam Laundry Co., until legal action against the company was taken by the Marders.
Floral Garden Hall
Malka Marder sold the building in February 1913, and it was purchased the following month by Sarah Hirsch, the wife of Charles Hirsch, proprietor of the Manhattan Lyceum at 66-68 East 4th Street; both Hirsches were born in Romania. Operated as Floral Garden Hall, it was altered into a dance hall on the ground story, with meeting and banquet rooms above. Among the many events held here were: the annual convention of the Federation of Rumanian Jews of America ; Brotherhood Welfare Association gathering on behalf of completely new Yorkís hoboes ; Women Dressmakersí Association and Journeymen Barbersí League strike meetings ; a planned meeting of the Anti-Militarist League, which resulted in a riot after the owner reneged on the use of the hall ; Sheet Metal Workersí meetings ; garment workers strike meetings ; Messenger Boysí Union strike headquarters ; and Branch No. 578, Arbeiter Ring of the Socialist Party, and Sholom Aleichem Lodge of the Jewish National Workersí Alliance of America . In 1916, the ground story was altered for a storefront, incorporating 1892 cast-iron pilasters . The property was foreclosed in January 1919 and sold at auction.
Standard Provision Co./ Hygrade Food Products Corp.
After 45 years of use as a social and meeting hall, the former Aschenbroedel Verein Building for the next four decades served as meatpacking plant. The property was purchased in February 1919 by the Standard Provision Co. at 102 Rivington Street. A Dept. of Buildings application indicated that the building would be used for meatpacking, with storage in the basement, shipping and receiving on the ground story, a meat provisions and drying factory on the second story, and offices on the third story. In December 1927, Standard Provision was acquired through a merger of nine wholesale provisions companies by the Hygrade Food Products Corp. , 152 Broadway. The Washington Post called this ìthe first consolidation of delicatessen food properties ever effected.î According to a notice in the completely new York Times, the constituent companies
manufacture and sell frankfurters, bolognas, salamis, smoked and cured tongues, spiced, pickled and corned beef and various other ready-to-serve meat products. The companies are among the most important serving completely new York and Philadelphia. Their success individually and collectively has established an enviable record in the industry. Their products are sold to over 5,000 customers, including delicatessen stores, chain stores, drug stores, meat markets, clubs, grocers, hotels, restaurants, steamship and railroad companies, etc., throughout the United States and in foreign countries.
City directories over the years variously listed divisions of the corporation here: Hebrew National Food Products ; Carmel Kosher Provision Co. ; and Hod Carmel Kosher Provision Co. . Hygrade sold this property in February 1960.
20th-Century History of the East Village
After a period of decline, Greenwich Village was becoming known, prior to World War I, for its historic and picturesque qualities, its affordable housing, and the diversity of its population and social and political ideas. Many artists and writers, as well as tourists, were attracted to the Village. By the 1910s, property owners and merchants attempted to improve the Villageís economy and rehabilitate its physical condition, with ìshrewd realtors beg[inning] to amass their holdings of dilapidated housing.î These various factors and the increased desirability of the Village to upper-middle-class professionals lead to a real estate boom ñ ìrents increased during the 1920s by 140 percent and in some cases by as much as 300 percent.î
After World War II, the ethnic make-up of the Lower East Side changed again, becoming dominated by Latin American immigrants, especially those from Puerto Rico. Their immigration was encouraged by the government as a source of cheap labor, particularly for the garment trades, hotels, and smaller manufacturing. The community named itself Loisaida to symbolize the second generation Hispanic roots that had developed in the context of the African-American and Latino movements for social and economic justice, equality, and identity. The residential and cultural desirability of the neighborhood that came to be known as the ìEast Villageî increased with the removal of the Third Avenue El in 1955. As indicated by Terry Miller,
the psychological barrier that had marked the eastern boundary of Greenwich Village was gone. Blocks that once had no prestige were suddenly seen as intriguing, and apartments here were less costly than those in Greenwich Village. … As artists and writers moved east, the blocks from St. Markís Place to Tenth Street were the first to hint that the Lower East Side was being transformed. Realtors began marketing the area as ìVillage East,î and by 1961 as the ìEast Village,î a name that stuck.
From World War I to the 1940s, Second Avenue between East 14th and Houston Streets had been considered the heart of completely new Yorkís Jewish community, known as the ìYiddish Rialtoî for its role as the worldís center of Yiddish theater. As Yiddish theater declined, the East Village gave rise in the 1950s to ìOff-Broadwayî theater, including the Phoenix Theater in the former Louis N. Jaffe Art Theater building , 181-189 Second Avenue; the Tempo Playhouse and Pyramid, Key, Bowery, completely new Bowery, and Bridge Theaters in the former Hamilton-Holly House, 4 St. Marks Place; and the Orpheum Theater , 126 Second Avenue. An ìoff-Off-Broadwayî theater also emerged in the late 1950s, characterized by the smaller size of the venues and total avoidance of commercialism and its pressures. Joe Cinoís Caffe Cino , 31 Cornelia Street, is generally recognized as the first, and other significant early off-Off-Broadway theaters were Judson Memorial Church under Rev. Al Carmines; Ellen Stewartís CafÈ La Mama/ La Mama Experimental Theatre Club , 321 East 9th Street ; and Theater Genesis in St. Marks in the Bowery Church under Michael Allen and Ralph Cook. Off-Off Broadway theater coincided with the emergence of gay theater in completely new York.
In the 1950s, the East Village also became home to a number of key Beat Generation writers, including Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, and W.H. Auden, and was renowned for its protest art and politics, galleries, poetry and coffee houses, bookstores, clubs, with a ìcountercultureî scene centered on St. Markís Place.
Rodale Press, Inc.
The 74 East 4th Street building was purchased in February 1960 by Rodale Press, Inc., of Emmaus, Pa. Jerome Irving Rodale was a completely new York accountant who, with a brother, in 1923 founded Rodale Mfg. Co., which made commercial and residential electrical connectors. After relocating the firm to Emmaus, Rodale became interested in organic farming. Rodale Press began publishing Organic Farming & Gardening and Prevention , a magazine devoted to nutrition and personal health, and later, other magazines and health books. In order to promote his concepts, he was also a playwright and theatrical producer. Rodale apparently originally intended to use No. 74 as a theater ñ the Times listed building plans as such in 1960; instead, Rodale in 1962 purchased No. 64 East 4th Street with the intention to ìconvert it into an intimate playhouse, theatre workshop and acting school.î A directory in 1963 listed Rodale Press and the Rodale Theater at 62 East 4th Street, and Rodale Mfg. Co. at No. 60. Rodale sold the property in September 1967.
La Mama Experimental Theatre Club
In November 1967, the former Aschenbroedel Verein Building was acquired by the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, an off-Off-Broadway theater company that had been founded in 1961 by Ellen Stewart. After her arrival in completely new York in 1950, Ms. Stewart worked in retail clothing and fashion, becoming a freelance designer. She opened a basement CafÈ La Mama at 321 East 9th Street in 1961, intended as a combination boutique and theater, the latter partly inspired by the experience of a brother who was an aspiring playwright. The cafÈís first play in July 1962 was Tennessee Williamsí ìOne Arm,î and later that year Stewart put on the first American production of a Harold Pinter play, ìThe Room.î She was forced, however, to move several times: to 82 Second Avenue in 1963, after being closed by the Dept. of Buildings due to a zoning violation; and to a loft at 122 Second Avenue in 1964, after being closed twice by the Police, Fire, Licenses, and Health Departments. In March 1964, the company was renamed the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, and Stewart was acclaimed during its first European tour in 1965. An Actorsí Equity crackdown in 1966 on coffee houses and theater workshops nearly ended the company, but the union relented in recognition of the importance in completely new York of experimental theater . By 1967, the Times called Ms. Stewart ìthe most active producer in completely new York City,î with a completely new American play every two weeks. Her abiding philosophy has been that La Mama is ìdedicated to the playwright and all forms of theater.î She notes that ìI started La Mama so there would be a place where a playwright could write, see and learn. Why should a completely new playwright be regarded on the same terms as an experienced playwright the very first time out ñ which is what most professional criticism does?î She has personally selected and invited these playwrights, who then act as their own producer, with La Mama considered an attractive venue due to its lack of censorship.
La Mama received major Ford and Rockefeller Foundations grants in 1967, allowing the purchase and renovation of the 74 East 4th Street building, which was then ìin ruins.î In June 1968, its Second Avenue theater closed, with plays temporarily produced at 9 St. Markís Place, while renovations occurred on East 4th Street. The current La Mama Experimental Theatre Club opened in March 1969, with repertory and ensemble theaters on the first and second stories, rehearsal space on the third story, and Stewartís apartment on the top story. The first two productions inaugurating the theaters were the musical ìCaution: A Love Story,î by Tom Eyen and Bruce Kirle, based on the story of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Julie Bovassoís ìGloria and Esperanza.î The first-story theater was renovated in 1972. A National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1974 allowed for the expansion into an Annex at 66-68 East 4th Street .
Today, La Mama, the oldest off-Off-Broadway theater in completely new York City, is widely considered the most influential and has been called ìthe most prolific of all the off off-Broadway stages,î to date having produced an estimated 1,900 plays in completely new York City, and countless more around the world. La Mama has received more than sixty Obie Awards for Off-Broadway theater , as well as dozens of Drama Desk, Bessie, and Villager Awards. Ellen Stewart, recognized as a pioneering African-American theater impresario, was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship Award and MacArthur Fellows Award , and was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame . Though commercial theater has not been its focus, a number of La Mama plays achieved success on Broadway, including ìGodspellî and ìTorch Song Trilogy,î and its resident director, Tom OíHorgan, later produced the influential hit ìHair.î Among the notable playwrights associated with La Mama have been Jean-Claude van Itallie, Paul Foster, Ruth Yorck, Tom Eyen, Julie Bovasso, David Starkweather, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Harvey Fierstein, William Hoffman, Adrienne Kennedy, Charles Ludlam, and Terence McNally; eminent directors have included OíHorgan, Joseph Chaiken, Andrei Serban, Wilford Leach, John Vacarro, Marshall Mason, and Meredith Monk; and performers of note have included Bill Irwin, Billy Crystal, Nick Nolte, Danny De Vito, Bette Midler, and Estelle Getty.
The four-story and three-bay, red brick-clad Aschenbroedel Verein Building was originally built in 1873; the front facade was altered in 1892 with the addition of cast-iron ornament that combines elements of the German Renaissance Revival and neo-Grec styles with folk motifs.
Ground Story: Four 1892 cast-iron pilasters survive, which are fluted at the base, paneled above, and ornamented with incised blocks that are surmounted by bosses and inverted hearts. The iron entablature once supported by the pilasters has been removed ; the story is terminated by a painted stone stringcourse. Alterations dating from 1969 include: the central metal-and-glass entrance doors , which are surmounted by a wooden panel and sign; brick infill between and above the pilasters; announcement board on the east side of the facade; and two light fixtures placed above the entrance.
Second through Fourth Stories: The upper stories are flanked by vermiculated cast-iron quoins . All windows have cast-iron surrounds, ornamented with hearts on the sides and incised motifs on the sills, and are linked together and to the quoins by panels with fraktur-like incising. Many of the moldings once located above the hearts on the windows are missing. The second-story windows are double-height, are capped by round-arched pediments ornamented with three composersí busts, and have six-over-six double-hung wood sash . The third story windows have segmental broken-scroll pediments and six-over-six double-hung wood sash . The central fourth-story window is capped by a pediment, while the outer windows have entablatures . The prominent metal cornice has stylized modillions ornamented with hearts , rods, and incised ends and is surmounted by a large molded, broken pediment, ornamented at the ends by sunbursts.
Western Facade: This facade, currently visible above the first story, has keyed returns of the front facadeís quoins, and a portion of red brick facing; the rest of the facade is unarticulated and parged.
Eastern Facade: Attached to the eastern side of the building [and not on the designated Landmark Site] is a tan brick wall, constructed as part of a light court for No. 63-65 Second Avenue .
– From the 2009 NYCLPC Landmark Designation Report