With its modest terracotta facades and distinct yet decaying elements of the Romanesque style, Webster Hall is a space that was both preserved and manipulated by time. Designed by a rather obscure architect named Charles Rentz in 1886, the Hall served many purposes throughout its 126 years of existence. “The space has hosted everything from debutante balls and society dinners to wrestling matches, political rallies, union meetings, and bohemian costume dances” (GVSHP). To this day it remains a symbol of the unique artistic culture of the Lower East Side.
This distinct East Village landmark underwent numerous transformations throughout the years, both on the inside and outside. What we now recognize as Webster Hall is in fact a seamless blending of two facades, both designed by Rentz in 1886 and later, 1892. The building also had an elaborately designed roof at some point, which was presumably lost in one of the many fires that the building suffered. With five major fires occurring in the Hall in only the first half of the 20th century, the building still survived and earned itself a an almost humorous reputation of indestructability, as evidenced in the many Webster Hall obituaries that the New York Times published. Other than the loss of the original roof, the building still looks very much like it did all those years ago. There was only one major restoration in 1927 during which an arched entrance with the engraved initials “WH” was added. Inside, however, the building has always and will most likely continue to change. From its early days, Webster Hall was a “hall for hire”, meaning that groups could either rent rooms or the whole building for their intents and purposes. According to the New York Times, the Hall “began by seeing red-cheeked debutantes introduced to society and ended—if ended it has—by seeing red-nosed bohemians thumbing defiance at society (Webster Hall).” In other words, its initial uses were supposedly more socially acceptable than its later ones in 1938, when the article was written.
However, even this can be disputed. According to the article from GVSHP (The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation), “[the New York Times’] notion seems to be colored by nostalgia, as even in the hall’s early years, it was rented by socialists, a saloon keepers alliance, a clothing cutters union, and other groups that were outside of the conventions of upper middle class society.”
For many decades, a variety of mostly working-class groups used Webster Hall for political rallies, official meetings, and for pleasure. To focus more specifically on the Hall’s significance during the Great Depression, in 1930 the space was used by anti-Fascists. It was here that they adopted a resolution condemning Mussolini. I can’t seem to find any substantial information about that, although it sounds fascinating—and radical. Even before the 1930s and during the era of Prohibition, the Hall was notorious for its radical reputation. According to Webster Hall’s official website, “it was the birth of the modern nightclub…the balls moved from the social and political trends of the past to the hedonistic attitude of the “speak”… the police [would] turn a blind eye to the merrymakers who attended despite, or perhaps because of, whispers that the venue was owned by the infamous mobster Al Capone”. In fact, Prohibition’s repeal was the cause for one of Webster Hall’s most legendary and outlandish celebrations, “The Return of John Barleycorn.” Webster Hall also hosted several Drag Balls during the 1920s. The events were very successful in shaping the culture of the Village and creating a gay enclave in the neighborhood; it was one of the few times when transvestites were allowed to openly dress in drag. These festivities continued until the Great Depression (Montgomery). George Chauncey also made reference to the gay culture in Webster Hall in “Building Neighborhood Enclaves: the Village and Harlem”, and actually asserted that the culture was still strong even in the early years of the Depression.
What actually went on in the Hall during the Depression is limited to the fires, obituaries, and political (anti-fascist) rallies that I’ve touched upon earlier. The Great Depression and World War II essentially put an end to the lavish parties and costume balls of the 1920s. The events that followed were mostly political, until Webster Hall re-emerged in 1980 as The Ritz Nightclub (which was actually later relocated). It became a leading venue for rock shows, and boasted performers such as Madonna, Prince, Guns N’ Roses, Sting, and KISS. In 1990, under new ownership, the Hall was renamed Webster Hall again and became known for its dance club and nightlife scene; it still has this reputation to this day.
However, Webster Hall is more than just a nightclub with a colorful history of political rallies and Bohemian culture. According to Webster Hall’s website, it is known as the place of the “ultimate party”, and while this may just be a marketing tactic used by the Hall’s promoters, there is some truth in that. Indeed, Webster Hall is both a nightclub and a concert venue, which still boasts an impressive repertoire of performers such as Gotye and Of Montreal. It has a solid reputation in the East Village and the Bowery District. The Bowery “was all ﬂophouses, whiskey joints, and legendary bums. The ﬂophouses survive, but now they’re surrounded by celebrity lounges and multi-million-dollar lofts (Gross).” Webster Hall is a huge part of the Bowery District and is probably the main cause for the District’s popularity. To this day, the Hall is used for many purposes but prides itself in being the main space for the ultimate entertainment experience. The forms of entertainment have changed from costume balls to dance parties and mosh pits, and the people attending these events have changed as well. It is almost inevitable that the Hall will continue to change with time, especially in a location so known for its social and political responsiveness.
“Webster Hall,” The New York Times, 1938, accessed on March 28, 2012, http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F10F12FF3D5C1B7A93C1AB1789D85F4C8385F9&scp=2&sq=&st=p
Matt Gross, “The Bowery”, New York Magazine, July 26, 2005, accessed on March 28, 2012, http://nymag.com/nymetro/realestate/neighborhoods/maps/10117/
“Webster Hall History and Significance,” Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, July 20, 2007, accessed on March 28, 2012, http://www.gvshp.org/_gvshp/preservation/webster_hall/doc/WebsterHallLPCSubmission.pdf
Eric Montgomery, “Drag Ball in Webster Hall-1920s,” accessed on March 28, 2012, http://aphdigital.org/GVH/items/show/947
George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, Chapter 9, “Building Gay Neighborhood Enclaves: The Village and Harlem”