The return of Webster Hall: A tale of debauchery and activism in one of New York’s oldest clubs

The East Village nightclub Webster Hall reopens this evening with a concert by Jay-Z after an extensive interior renovation by new owner Barclays/Bowery Presents.

Have tickets to tonight’s show? Then you’ll be able to judge for yourself whether the storied venue retains its “idiosyncratic grandeur.

The hall has had many facelifts over the past 133 years, evolving to mirror the tastes of Greenwich Village residents. This latest upgrade is a belated reflection of the neighborhood’s various sleek changes. That said, the renovations as described seem positively mild in comparison to the blistering reinvention of neighboring Astor Place.

From the exterior, it appears absolutely nothing has changed. In 2008 Webster Hall was designated a New York City landmark for its impressive terra-cotta architecture and its status as a beacon of ethnic and social counter-culture during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

If I were the owner of this club, I would affix the following description (from an 1888 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article) in massive letters near the entrance:

As we wrote in our book Adventures In Old New York: “Opened in 1886, the hall hosted the annual Greenwich Village Ball from the 1910s to the 1930s, a bacchanalia where artists, bohemians, drag queens, and general reprobates of the best kind came to drink, dance, and seriously make merry until early morning. It worked hard to earn its nickname “the devil’s playhouse.”

Author Allan Church wrote, “So many dances-till-dawn and fancy dress balls were held there that one Villager said of himself and his wife: ‘We’ve sold our bed. Why sleep when there’s a dance every night at Webster Hall?’ ”

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In celebration of its new landmark status, we recorded a short episode on the history of Webster Hall back in January 2009.  Listen to it here or look for it in our feed (episode #73)

Here’s a few clippings from old newspapers, giving you a few additional insights into Webster Hall’s spectacular history:

Webster Hall was rebellious before it even opened. St. Ann’s, the church which most vigorously decried its existence, has all been erased except for its entrance:

In 1887 Webster Hall played host to a private dance for wealthy black New Yorkers, members of the Doctors’ Drivers’ Association, “a band of athletic young gentlemen who are always on the alert to bear physicians on errands of mercy.”

A depiction of the baseball scoreboard that was installed by the New  York Evening World to ‘instantaneously’ update baseball scores from Boston in 1890. [The complete article is here.]

New York Evening World
New York Evening World
1

The party rages at a Webster Hall artist costume ball, in a photo by the great Jessie Tarbox Beals (date unknown, most likely late 1910s).

Courtesy Schlesinger Library
Courtesy Schlesinger Library

Garment workers meet out in front of Webster Hall, between 1910-1915.  The venue was a pivotal meeting spot for union groups, political activists and anarchist leaders like Emma Goldman.

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

Greek immigrants gather in front of Webster Hall as they prepare to return to their country to engage in the first Balkan war (October 1912).

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

From a 1930 article:

A 1933 poster advertising the annual Greenwich Village costume ball, designed by John Sloan

Courtesy Ephemeral New York
Courtesy Library of Congress

The cast of ‘How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying’ recording the cast album at Webster Hall, 1961.

cast

Jefferson Airplane’s first New York concert, January 8, 1967, at Webster Hall

(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In the 1980s and early 90s, Webster Hall was known as The Ritz. Much of the scrappy charm of Webster Hall that people love derives from its years as this important rock venue. Here’s Run DMC performing at The Ritz, May 15, 1984

Photograph by Josh Cheuse/updownsmilefrown
Photograph by Josh Cheuse/updownsmilefrown

In 1980, the young Irish rock band U2 had their American debut at The Ritz. Their second performance there, in March of 1981, was reviewed by the New York Times, and the original review — by Stephen Holden, no less — is worth a look if you’re a U2 fan. “Bono Hewson, U2’s lead singer, has a moderately strong voice that was partially drowned out at the Ritz. This was a shame, since the band’s material is of considerable interest.”

Later, on May 15, 1981, angry Public Image Limited fans, confused by a cheeky video projection, yanked down the screen and trashed the place in an event know as “the infamous Ritz Riot.”

The Cro-Mags, performing at The Ritz in 1986:

At top — Webster Hall in 1913

1913 courtesy International News Service