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.
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?’ ”
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 archive (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.]
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).
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.
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).
From a 1930 article:
A 1933 poster advertising the annual Greenwich Village costume ball, designed by John Sloan
The cast of ‘How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying’ recording the cast album at Webster Hall, 1961.
Jefferson Airplane’s first New York concert, January 8, 1967, at Webster Hall
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
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.”
The Cro-Mags, performing at The Ritz in 1986:
At top — Webster Hall in 1913
1913 courtesy International News Service