All week, we’re bringing you a series of deep dives into the surprising histories of storied addresses. Back to our usual after the New Year.
The raucous audience inside Turn Hall grew increasingly impatient for the curtain’s rise. Police had just arrived at 66-68 East 4th Street, between Bowery and Second Avenue, to subdue the swelling mob at the door, those unfortunate souls without a ticket to see America’s first Yiddish play.
The spectators had paid a whopping five dollars for seats normally valued at 50 cents in 1882. Such was the excitement surrounding the sold-out performance of Koldunye, or The Witch. A production conceived of by the 13-year-old sweatshop worker named Boris Thomashefsky, the play brought professional Yiddish theater stateside, says historian Nahma Sandrow. But the real-life drama that night trumped the work of playwright Abraham Goldfaden: the leading lady had disappeared.
You could call that historic evening a dress rehearsal — plus a hundred years — for the building’s current role as the epicenter of La MaMa, the now international pioneer in experimental theater.
Sweat trickled down the brows of Thomashefsky and his producer, Frank Wolf, who owned a bar on the corner of Hester and Essex Streets. They had paid for the steamship passage of the actors, Yiddish imports from the old country. They had sprung for fancy suits to dress the ushers. They had smugly sauntered up and down the Bowery between rehearsals, tipping their top hats, the catcall of yore. They had dropped so much cash and built up so much hype, the show had to go on.
So they rushed to the home of Mirele Krantsfeld, the evening’s stunning headliner-gone-missing. They found her lounging in a kimono, a cold towel on her forehead to ease her throbbing temples. Apparently she had a headache.
Her sudden illness had a sponsor: The rival uptown German Jewish Committee, appalled that these Eastern Europeans would create such a spectacle, and in Yiddish no less, had paid her hush money to sabotage the evening. But Thomashefsky and Wolf could play hardball too. They counter-bribed Krantsfeld $300 dollars, promising to also equip her husband with a corner soda-water stand on Bowery and Division.
The threesome rushed back to the playhouse to save the evening, but it was too late: Turn Hall was a madhouse. As the cast fought backstage, remaining audience members rioted.
So the story goes, says Sandrow, who’s written extensively on Yiddish theatre. Thomashefsky eventually recovered, becoming the leading Yiddish actor of his day. And Turn Hall continued to evolve as a nexus of political and artistic activity. Standing at 66-68 East 4th Street, the building has accommodated a string of seemingly disparate groups united by creative inclinations and leftist tendencies.
It’s an artistic charm still ascribed by the Fourth Arts Block cultural district, that stretch of East 4th between Second Avenue and Bowery. Despite the unremitting neighborhood grumbles about the loss of the local reputation for incubating ingenuity, radicalism and vibrant social life, vestiges of the heritage persist. That appetite for quirk stretches back long before punk, runaways, hippies or Beatniks. There’s a thing or two to be learned from the German gymnasts, Yiddish thespians, Russian anarchists and Ukrainian labor activists who first gave the neighborhood its zeal.
Serious urban development began in the East Village and Lower East Side in the 1830s. What would later become Turn Hall at 66-68 East 4th was then 6 and 7 Albion Place, one of the development’s fashionable homes designed for single families and their servants. The real estate moguls du jour were the wealthy merchants Elisha Peck and Anson G. Phelps, who developed the area on spec in 1832.
Albion Place, flanked by Greek revival row houses, became the destination for cultured, middle-class German immigrants. The entrances featured stoops so that well-heeled owners and their visitors could stand above the dirty street, while servants accessed living and working quarters at ground level.
But lefty Germans kicked off the building’s social life. A German gymnastics club with a Socialist bent bought up the residences and converted them into Turn Hall in 1871, raising the attic to create a fourth story, and installing elaborate bay windows, ornamental molding, and a grand entrance.
Dubbed the New York Turnverein, meaning “gymnastics association,” the organization laid Turn Hall’s cornerstone to much fanfare. Dozens of organizations including a Veteran’s Vocal Choir and the German Ladies Hospital Association marched up Canal and Bowery from the Turnverein’s original home on Orchard Street. They christened the tumblers’ new digs with a picnic and concert.
This day of merrymaking came two decades after the original organization founders gathered one summer evening at Stubenbord’s Restaurant at 48 Beekman Street, just south of City Hall. Three dozen German immigrants met there, presumably over pilsner and pretzels, to form the “Socialist New York Turnverein.”
“Apart from physical gymnastics,” read the first meeting minutes, the Turnverein sought “to strongly encourage true freedom, prosperity and education for all classes” against “the pressure of mind and material goods.”
This insistence on freedom and solidarity came as no surprise considering that most “Turners” had fled home as political refugees after the German Revolutions of 1848. In those days what we now know as Germany remained a tattered patchwork of 39 individually governed states. Discontent fueled by economic depression and famine prompted sporadic rebellions calling for a single nation-state uniting all German speakers in Europe.
But these loosely coordinated protests were too feeble to topple the monarchs who reigned over the German and Austrian territories, and those who instigated and participated in the uprisings feared persecution by the ruling elites. Known as the Forty-Eighters, these political émigrés numbering in the tens of thousands fled to the United States.
Cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati were popular destinations, where Forty-Eighters established the socialist enclaves they had rallied for in the Vaterland. But many settled in Manhattan, drawn by an already growing German-speaking community: In terms of population, and maybe even beer consumption, mid-19th century New York became the third most German city in the world, after Berlin and Vienna, with the East Village and Lower East Side as Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany.
The Turnverein movement played a central role in German expat communities throughout America, including New York. Developed in early 19th century Berlin, the Turnverein philosophy advocated for communal physical exercise to foster civic solidarity. The Germans who settled in the United States reestablished their Turnverein network, a web connecting socialist gymnasts across the country. By the turn of the century, more than 300 Turnvereins had registered with the “Socialistic Turnerbund of North America,” the national union.
Moving to their new large space at 66-68 East 4th Street allowed the New York Turnverein to expand beyond gymnastics into fencing. One May afternoon during drills, Franz Sigel, who served as a Union major general in the Civil War, delighted the young athletes by watching them perform. But Sigel himself got the most riled up: “The General grew quite excited as the bouts became spirited,” read the New York Times account of the event. He “came near prodding several friends who stood near with his cane as he whirled it about in artistic poses.”
The New York gymnasts were less politically militant than their midwestern brethren in Chicago and Milwaukee, who ardently lobbied for labor rights. The Turnverein on East 4th focused more on athletics and revelry: Turn Hall regularly hosted holiday parties, picnics and gymnastics exhibitions. The building also contained a grand theater-for-rent, hosting historic events like the aforementioned Yiddish theater premiere, as well as famous vaudeville acts. The Turners also frequented the headquarters of a leading music club just up the street known as the Aschenbroedel Verein. Those thirsty after a bout of tumbling could stop by the basement of a then still-intact row house at 70 East 4th, where a top brewer sold his famous “Jacob Ruppert’s Lager Bier.”
But by the turn of the century Kleindeutschland ended with the German population’s shift north to Yorkville and the General Slocum steamship fire of 1904 that killed more than a thousand German Americans, the largest loss of human life in the city before 9/11.
Some Germans stuck around, but the flood of Polish Roman Catholics, Protestant Hungarians and Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europeans began. Although the Turnverein relocated in 1898 to an even bigger uptown space on the corner of Lexington and 85th, the arts scene and left-leaning political spirit the Germans imbued into the area remained.
Turn Hall became the Manhattan Lyceum, a theater-for-hireowned by Charles Hirsch. The 1882 production of The Witch foreshadowed the neighborhood’s transformation into America’s destination for Yiddish drama. Hundreds of thousands of Yiddish immigrants in the neighborhood led to its designation as the “Yiddish Rialto,” and much of the social life revolved around the stage.“Especially in New York, Yiddish theater became an institution in the cultural life of the community. People loved theatre,” said historian Nahma Sandrow. “Here you worked in a sweatshop, you were poor, but if you saved up and maybe went without supper that night, you could manage a ticket.”
But Yiddish performers weren’t the only regulars at the Manhattan Lyceum at 66-68 East 4th.
Hundreds of hobos made the building their de facto headquarters, organized by J. Eads How of the Brotherhood Welfare Association. Proprietor Hirsch, however, was less than thrilled by the tramps occupying his space, and gave them a notice of eviction after they applied for permission to sleep there.The building also served as a center for social activism and radical politics, frequented by anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. On October 30, 1906, Goldman was fired up to speak at 66-68, but police broke up the event and arrested her along with 10 others for distributing copies of her Mother Earth magazine. She was charged with criminal anarchy, as the magazine commemorated the fifth anniversary of the execution of Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated President McKinley. A grand jury dropped the charges in 1907.
A year later, Goldman and Berkman did speak at the Manhattan Lyceum to honor the 20th anniversary of the Chicago Haymarket riots. It was one of many political talks the duo would hold on East 4th prior to their 1917 arrest and jail sentence for encouraging draft-dodgers.
In April 1911 the Anarchist Red Cross held a Prisoner Ball benefit to raise funds for “exiled and imprisoned comrades.” Four years later the Russian-language anarcho-syndicalist newspaper Golos Truda, or “Voices of Labor,” held its International Masquerade Ball in the space, because even abolishing the wage system calls for a good old-fashioned fundraiser sometimes.
The anarchist events grew less frequent after Goldman and Berkman, along with 246 other alleged dissidents, were deported to Russia after J. Edgar Hoover filed a high profile case against suspected subversives. But leftists and creative types continued to hobnob at 66-68 East 4th: In 1925 the Ukrainian Labor Home, a socialist club, acquired the deed to the storied building, though the interior theater kept the name Manhattan Lyceum.
The area grew increasingly seedy, attracting gangsters and flappers looking to hang loose. Down the street from the Labor Home, the Sicilian mob boss Lucky Luciano ran his illicit Palm Casino bar and brothel on the second floor of 85 East 4th, today’s KGB Bar. His partner in crime Frank “the Prime Minister” Costello often frequented the club. The owners of the present-day space opened the Red Room last winter, a re-imagining of Luciano’s tin-ceilinged bastion of sleaze. Today’s owners added their own Deco touches, including an antique spyhole and a copper gin tub.
The Ukrainians ran their own prohibition-era saloon called the Black Bottom nightclub in the basement of 68 East 4th. In 1937, the house at 66-68 became the Manhattan Plaza Dance Hall, a name still inscribed on the building’s façade. The area remained a destination for carousing, theatre and dance. The Ukrainian Labor Home moved up to 85 East 4th shortly thereafter, taking over Luciano’s space after the mobster jetted to Cuba. The Ukrainians continued to run a second-floor speakeasy, but kept their Soviet propaganda locked away on the fourth floor to evade Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.
But East 4th fixtures would soon face a threat even greater than the Red Scare: In 1959 New York City’s Slum Clearance Committee, chaired by Robert Moses, proposed an “urban renewal” plan for the neighborhoods surrounding the street. The committee planned to raze the row houses, tenements and meeting halls that had served community residents for more than a century. Demolishing area buildings had the potential to displace 2,400 lower class tenants and more than 500 businesses, most of which couldn’t afford to move, and more importantly didn’t want to.
Residents refused to let Moses prevail. The Cooper Square Committee, the same organization as today’s, formed in March 1959 to fight for the residents and businesses of the neighborhood. The CSC pushed an alternative plan aimed at preserving the local character.
In the meantime, 66-68 East 4th had shifted from the stage to the silver screen. The space became Biltmore Studios, changing its name to ABC Stage City in 1956. It churned out films throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, giving the late Jerry Orbach of “Law and Order” fame, his first film credit with Mad Dog Coll. The studio also shot 1968’s Coogan’s Bluff starring Clint Eastwood, as well as the Oscar-nominated Hester Street, a critically acclaimed film about the Jewish immigrants who once dominated the area. The studio also filmed two police television dramas, Naked City and NYPD.
The city eventually gave in to the Cooper Square Committee, approving a modified version of the advocacy group’s plan in 1970. Many of the families, artists and businesses remained, even as the neighborhood deteriorated. In 1971, ABC Stage City deserted the structurally dilapidated 66-68 East 4th, leaving the city to seize and condemn the building through eminent domain.
And so it sat vacant, awaiting seemingly assured destruction, but the soon-to-be legendary Ellen Stewart had other plans. She was working to establish an experimental performance venue, a vanguard of the city’s Off-Off Broadway Movement that resisted commercial theater. A former Saks Fifth Avenue fashion designer, she and her thespian friends had been producing plays since 1961 in a tiny basement at 312 East 9th Street. But they didn’t have a permit, and the city eventually caught on, ordering the dramatists to evacuate.
But Stewart, by then known as “Mama,” refused to give up. And in 1974, she, along with the Carlos Perez Community Center and the Millennium Film Workshop, secured a 30-day lease from the city for 66-68 East 4th with promises to the city to rehabilitate it with funds raised through the Department of Cultural Affairs. She and her collective also scooped up the former Aschenbroedel Verein at 74 East 4th, where the company puts on shows to this day. Stewart inhabited the fourth floor of the old German musical hall, even though permanent residency remained technically illegal under the lease agreement with the city. At the time, the city struck similar month-to-month rent deals with various arts organizations seeking to move into abandoned buildings.
Later that year, La MaMa opened its brand new Annex in the very place young Boris Thomashefsky introduced Yiddish theatre to New York. Stewart’s production was less of a fiasco: The La MaMa Repertory Troupe, now called the Great Jones Repertory Company, opened with the complete trilogy of Electra, Trojan Women, and Media. La MaMa was not alone: Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, East 4th remained a nerve center of the avant-garde. Clubs and galleries filled the neighborhood, continuing the strong arts legacy dating back a century.“People are very excited about the layers of history here,” said Tamara Greenfield, executive director of the Fourth Arts Block cultural advocacy organization. “Everything was very on top of each other; Ukrainian dancing over here, Andy Warhol over there.”
Cultural organizations and residents coalesced around that neighborhood affinity when developers tempted the city, still the primary landlord of the district, to sell off its property in the late ‘90s. The threat of condominiums replacing the historic buildings that had been home to everyone from Turners to playwrights to the mob galvanized the community into action, spurring the formation of FAB to stop the city from caving.
“The identity of this neighborhood is really tied to its culture and activism,” Greenfield said. “It’s not a hard neighborhood to make the case for arts and culture. Because of a lot of the groups that formed here, they came out of movements where artists were saying, ‘We need to be able to have control of our own institutions, and not be dependent on the mainstream culture to recognize our work.’”
Proprietary control became the goal, and after several years of political ping-pong the community prevailed. Beginning in 2005, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg transferred ownership to the arts organizations still renting month-to-month. The city sold eight properties to their respective inhabitants for a dollar each, with deeds restricting use to nonprofit cultural purposes.The current arts organization tally is 17 performance and rehearsal spaces and 10 cultural facilities, says FAB, which adds on its website that the stretch of East 4th between 2nd Avenue and Bowery provides “more square feet of active cultural use than any other block in New York.”
It’s a taste for innovation that’s been brewing for more than a century, ever since the Germans tumbled into town.