Until we return to our usual schedule Jan. 3, enjoy this daily series of longer pieces in which we unravel the mysteries and the histories of storied addresses.
It’s the day after Christmas, and a group of what could be a thousand uniformed sharpshooters marches up the Bowery. It’s no zombie apocalypse but the German-American Shooting Society marching from its temporary meeting place at the Germania Assembly Rooms at 291-293 Bowery to its new headquarters at 12 St. Marks Place. The year is 1888.
Opening night of the new hall was the celebration of a long process to establish a permanent headquarters for the Society, which at the time was reported to number 1,400 members in 24 different companies. That evening “the entire building was handsomely draped and festooned with the national colors of Germany and America and with fancy banners,” according to the New York Times.
Today the only remnant of that scene is the German-American Shooting Society building itself at 12 St. Marks Place, now a historical landmark and one of the few remaining architectural vestiges of Little Germany.
“Kleindeutschland” once spread throughout most of the East Village and Lower East Side and was by population the third largest German city in the world behind Berlin and Vienna. The area around the Bowery in particular – studded with music halls, restaurants, theaters, variety halls and of course beer gardens – was the first iteration of the rowdy nightlife and music scene for which the East Village came to be known.
While that legacy lives on, the German community and tradition of shooting has continued to march farther out of the neighborhood. Today the New York City area, which once had dozens of such clubs and societies, has only three remaining Schützen Corps: the New York Schützen Corps, the Brooklyn Schützen Corps, and the Rifle Team of the Union Hill Turnverein. They remain active, participating in many community events, and competing against each other in an annual tri-club shoot.
Although few things are now more divisive than gun control, in 1888 New York shooting societies were one of the things that united German-Americans, providing a platform for recreation, socialization, and even political organization. The Society façade’s bold motto (“EINIGKEIT-MACHT-STARK,” meaning “Unity Makes Strong”) speaks as much to the communal nature of this bond as to its martial character. Having evolved from militias designed to protect local interests, today’s Schützen Corps are the defenders of Little Germany’s proud German-American heritage.
When the largest wave of German immigrants began to arrive in the 1830s, they concentrated in an area between 14th and Division Streets, the East River, and the Bowery. Little Germany emerged as the city’s first major ethnic enclave, defining the character of the area from the 1840s through the early 1900s. The Bowery at its western border served as what historian Stanley Nadel calls the “amusement and loafing district.”
The starting point of the Shooting Society’s 1888 march, at 291-293 Bowery, was once a multi-building complex known as the Germania Assembly Rooms with bars, billiard rooms, bowling alleys, ballrooms, and meeting rooms. In 1888 it was an important venue for social organization and entertainment for immigrants, especially the many German societies and clubs that were typical of the day.
Germans were keen on these social groups, which included secret societies, mutual benefit societies, church groups, political groups (including the German-American Anarchists) and clubs dedicated to singing or gymnastics as well as sharpshooting. The German-American Shooting Society was one of many such clubs that used the Hall’s meeting rooms to conduct its business.
Since Germany was not unified as a nation until 1871, the “Germans” who arrived in New York in the 1800s often formed these communities based on regional ties. Several members of the Bederkesa Schützen from northern Germany founded today’s New York Schützen Corps in 1857. Although the club claims to have operated out of 12 St. Marks Place, it is unclear whether the association began in the Germania Assembly Rooms or later.
Meanwhile the Brooklyn Schützen Corps was founded in 1858 at another German institution just across the East River: P. Rudy Schumacher’s Empire Hall in Brooklyn. But Larry Dittmer, the Corps’ historian, points out that the similarities ended there: the founders of the Brooklyn Corps were wealthy, politically connected men who likely “wouldn’t have been caught dead in Little Germany.”
Shooting clubs in Germany evolved from local town militias that had been formed because the various small states, princedoms, dukedoms, and kingdoms could not afford to raise their own armies. But when Germany was unified in 1871, these became gentlemen’s clubs (the original kind, Dittmer clarifies), a character they still retain today. He describes shooting as “Germany’s golf.”
The history in the United States is somewhat parallel. The Landmarks Preservation Commission reports that more than a quarter of militia members in New York City in the mid-1800s were German-American, and many served honorably in the Civil War. By the 1880s, however, “shooting had become a middle class pastime, and most halls had moved to the suburbs along with many residents” of Little Germany. Even for the German-American Shooting Society in 1888, the move from the midst of Little Germany’s crowded immigrant community to its own facilities in a more prosperous neighborhood slightly north was something of an aspirational achievement.
Of course in recent years the march of prosperity has returned to the neighborhood. The original Germania building was demolished in 2005 and reborn as the great glass box of the Avalon Condos. DBGB Kitchen and Bar, on the ground floor, does at least offer several German beers, including lager, which was Germany’s gift to America during the mid-1800s. This beer style’s cold-fermenting yeast meant it could be economically brewed in large quantities, which was all right by Little Germany. (More recently, the Paulaner Brauhaus opened, serving a Munich Lager brewed onsite.)
As Julian Ralph explains in his 1891 Century Magazine article on the Bowery, “Lager beer is of course the standards tipple of the Bowery, and it flows there in such torrents that…after a busy Saturday night, the very air that is breathed on the great avenue is weighted with the odor of soured beer.” Ralph counted 82 places “where drink is sold” along the Bowery’s entire 14-block stretch. Although the Society’s march took only the last five blocks of the Bowery before it became Fourth Avenue, they likely encountered several more drinking establishments of a different tenor than Peels, Gemma, and Saxon + Parole.
The relationship between saloons and societies was one of mutual benefit. Saloons, as Stanley Nadel explains in Little Germany: Ethnicity, Religion, and Class in New York City, 1845-1880, “provided meeting rooms for Vereine whose meetings brought in a steady flow of customers – who came in early and had some beer or wine, drank steadily through the meeting, and then stayed on to socialize and drink with friends after the meeting ended.” Julian Ralph also noted, “No matter what the aim or title of the organization, dancing, and the drinking of wine and beer seem to us the main purpose of the members.” This much, at least, appears to have remained unchanged. The Brooklyn Schützen Corps meets at the Plattdütsche Park restaurant, and Dittmer affectionately describes the group as “an eating and drinking club that also shoots.”
Of course such revelry was not always appreciated by the neighbors, another constant on which one might pause to reflect while passing by the former CBGB’s, now John Varvatos. Gustav Lindenmüller, “the Lager Beer King” whose popular Odeon was a bit farther south at 205 Bowery, became a great challenger of the city’s Sunday laws. The controversy seemed to pit members of the German community, who enjoyed spending their day off socializing in beer gardens, against a more pious crowd that included the New York Times.
Lindenmüller was eventually arrested and convicted, losing an appeal to the New York Supreme Court in 1861, but the laws continued to be spottily enforced in the Bowery.
By the time James Dabney McCabe published his Lights and Shadows of New York life: or, the Sights and Sensations of the Great City in 1872, things seemed to have resolved themselves in favor of the beer gardens. “The Sunday law is dead letter in the Bowery. Here on the Sabbath, one may see . . . concert saloons and the most infamous dens of vice are in full blast.” McCabe also remarked on how sad it was “to see how many children are to be found in these places,” perhaps foreshadowing the great Park Slope babies in the beer garden controversy.
McCabe was also not a fan of the shooting galleries that lined “almost the entire street,” with targets representing “nearly every variety of man and beast,” although his complaint owed more to the association with the vice of gambling at these carnival-like booths than the connection to violence. “Many a penny do these urchins spend here in the vain hope of winning the knife, and many are the seeds of evil sown among them by these ‘chances.’” The controversy over gun rights would not emerge for almost a hundred years. The fanciful targets, meanwhile, have been in use continuously ever since.
As the clubs were marching, the clock tower of the “Cooper Institute” may have been visible, as it still is today, even though in 1888 much of the Bowery was under the Third Avenue elevated railway line. It had opened in 1878 with great fanfare, but also threw dangerous sparks and pollution and cast much of the street under shadow.
Indeed, the marchers would continue their final blocks in darkness, completely under the elevated tracks after taking the right fork down Fourth Avenue, until turning right on St. Marks Place. St. Marks remains one of the few such street names that survived a vanity address marketing blitz in the 1820s onward, during which builders of row houses sought to lure buyers by giving their rows distinctive names (place, row, terrace) associated with fashionable London addresses. The arrival at this upscale residential area was a triumph for the club in more ways than one.
Upon reaching its new headquarters that evening, the Society would have recognized the building for its flamboyant German Renaissance revival style even if it hadn’t been so festively decorated. The banners in the national colors of Germany and America reinforced the Society’s dual heritage, echoing the flags depicted in the great terra-cotta bas relief at the fourth floor. The flags flank an eagle below a shooting target backed by crossed rifles with the words “EINIGKEIT-MACHT-STARK” carved above. The name of the club in German (“DEUTSCH-AMERIKANISCHE-SCHÜTZEN-GESELLSCHAFT”) figures prominently in a cornice between the second and third story.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission report on the German-American Shooting Society describes the building’s unique architecture. “Earlier German-built structures, such as [the Ottendorfer Public Library and Stuyvesant Polyclinic Hospital at 135 and 137 Second Avenue] were much more subdued in style and tone, perhaps because of the more serious nature of the proceeds to which these buildings were dedicated.” While French, Italian, and occasionally Dutch Renaissance architecture were popular in New York at the time, German Renaissance was rarely seen. It was a “style developed in Germany during the 16th century, appearing on castles as well as on the street-facades of more urban structures.”
Inside the building’s basement was a small shooting gallery, though it was used mainly for target practice since most of the shooting was conducted at larger ranges in Brooklyn and Queens.
Shooting competitions or Schützenfest were the opportunity for the societies to celebrate and socialize as well as win prizes for shooting prowess. In 1859, the Brooklyn Schützen Corps staged its first festival, inviting the New York Schützen Corps and several other German clubs that also had shooting groups. Such competitions involved various types of target shooting, including longer distances, precision shoots, and sometimes a sort of moving target version wherein a deer appeared momentarily only to be chased quickly by a dog, though “woe betide the man who missed the one and hit the other.” There was enough variety of contests and prizes that shooters of all skill levels could enjoy themselves.
The highlight of the festival, however, was the “eagle shoot” or “king shoot.” This event was restricted to the members of each club separately, and they would take turns shooting at a large, elaborately carved and decorated wooden eagle, attempting to separate its various body parts (wings, feet, neck, head – or heads if the eagle was a double-headed Austrian version) in a very strict order. Different prizes were awarded for each section, but the sharpshooter who achieved the final feat of severing the body would be crowned the Corps’ “King” for the next year.
The tradition continues today, although in 2008 the Brooklyn Schützen Corps found itself unable to shoot at the beautiful 150th anniversary bird John Kornahrens, the club’s “Vogelmeister,” had carved, and he had to quickly craft a less ornate replacement.
Of course club activities were not limited to shooting, and the German-American Shooting Society also offered a bowling alley, a bar, a restaurant and meeting rooms.
On June 15, 1904, the German-American community suffered a devastating tragedy when 1,021 mostly women and children on an outing organized by St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church were killed when the paddle steamer the General Slocum caught fire and sunk in the East River.
Throughout the next decade, survivors used the Schützen Hall as a meeting place to question the methods of the relief committee in distributing funds, to demand the punishment of the negligent ship owners and the federal inspectors, and to protest the release and then the restoral of citizenship to the boat’s Captain, William Van Schaick.
Although the Slocum came to represent the tragic symbolic end of Little Germany, its decline had begun even before the new clubhouse was built. On the eve of the march, Little Germany remained “the Capital of German America,” yet its share of the city’s German-American population had been in decline since the 1860s, when wealthier families began to move north to the Manhattan neighborhood of Yorkville or joined other established German enclaves in Brooklyn and Hoboken.
Finally in 1920 the Society sold its headquarters, leaving the building to play host to the changing character of the neighborhood. The New York Schützen Corps relocated to North Bergen, N.J., where, its website explains, it “continued to diversify and expand in the latter half of the 20th Century, including a Schuetzen Ladies Auxiliary, and a Legacy Division, which is committed to introducing the Generation X crowd to the joys and benefits of safe firearms shooting.” The building at 12 St. Marks, meanwhile, has been designated by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission to serve “as a reminder of an important ethnic group which once lived here and their many contributions to New York.”
For some the very idea of safe firearms shooting is an anathema, and the association with the NRA (the Brooklyn Schützen Corps is an affiliated club and the New York Schützen Corps displays the logo at the top right corner of its website) may be off-putting. But “schützen” actually means “to protect.” Just as when they were founded in the early days of German immigration, the societies are about much more than the shooting.
The first immigrants who arrived to make Little Germany forged an identity that was uniquely German-American before the notion of a united “Germany” itself existed, and the New York, Brooklyn, and Union Hill Shooting clubs maintain an active involvement in the German-American community now such as through the Plattdütsche Volksfest Vereen, the annual Steuben Parade, and of course Oktoberfest. As Dittmer put it, “whatever it is that’s German, one of our members is involved in it.”
And that still includes target shooting. Dittmer explained it can sometimes take as long as a year for the new guys to master this old sport, which requires a tremendous amount of mindfulness focused on body position and breathing control. It sounds a lot like another discipline currently being practiced at one of 12 St. Marks Place’s new tenants: Yoga to the People.
New York’s three remaining Schützen clubs will face each other again at the annual three-team shoot this January, February, and March, much as they did in 1859.