This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
In 2012, when attendees of an anarchist book fair scuffled with police and attempted to smash the windows of the Starbucks on Astor Place, the mayhem—far uptown from Occupy Wall Street’s demonstrations at Zuccotti Park— seemed to come out of nowhere. But it was hardly the first instance of unrest staged at the onetime site of the Astor Place Opera House. Opened in 1847, the opera house catered to the wealthy residents of the neighborhood, singing an aria of exclusivity that offended the general public. It later became the stage for the Astor Place Riot, a bloody clash born out of tension between the rich and the poor in the theater world that forced the Opera House to shutter its doors.
In the years since the original theater closed in 1852, the space has been home to the Mercantile Library, the Alexander Hamilton Institute, a union headquarters, and since 2002, a condo building with retail space that houses that incendiary Starbucks.
Tragedy on this plot of land on 8th Street at Astor Place, between Broadway and Lafayette, has not been confined to the librettos the operas portrayed between 1847 and the theater’s closing in 1852. On several occasions, in fact, the drama spilled violently off the stage.
In April of 1849, the English actor William Macready was hired to perform in a lofty portrayal of Macbeth at the Opera House. At the same time, American actor Edwin Forrest was set to play the Scottish king at the Broadway Theater just a few blocks away. Unrest grew around Macready’s impending arrival in New York, with working-class hordes in the East Village voicing their preference for Forrest’s rougher more relatable approach. The English actor lamented the lackluster welcome in his diary, calling Forrest a “blackguard” and complaining that his patience was tried. When he took the stage on May 7, things worsened. As he put it, the crowd grew restless, and during the third act, a particularly disgruntled theatergoer began lobbing chairs at the stage. Macready went back to his dressing room and wrote, “Being left alone, I begin to feel more seriously the indignities put on me, and entertain ideas of not going on the stage again.”
On the following Thursday, Mayor Caleb Woodhull sent for several gentlemen to be at his office at 11 o’clock. Among the men were the chief of police, the sheriff, and the theater’s proprietor, Mr. Niblo—all were there to talk about quelling further disturbance that evening. Woodhull later testified, “I stated to Mr. Niblo, as magistrate, that I had no right to interfere with his establishment, but my private wishes were that he should close his theatre on that night.” Woodhull went on to state that Mr. Niblo was intent on going ahead with the performance, and so the mayor instructed that police be dispatched to maintain order.
As Macready headed to the opera house that night, he saw the police gathering. “I went, gaily, I may say, to the theatre, and on my way, looking down Astor Place, saw one of the Harlem cars on the railroad stop and discharge a full load of policemen,” Macready wrote on May 10. “There seemed to be others at the door of the theatre.”
“This is good precaution,” he wrote of his thoughts to himself. Reassured, he took the stage.
As reported by the Hartford Daily Courant, groans ricocheted off the walls as Macready delivered his lines. At points, it was impossible to hear him over the clamor. And although the police began to escort the rioters outside, there was no mollifying the mob. “As the parquette and gallery were cleared of the noisiest rioters, the crowd without grew more violent, and stones were hurled against the windows on the Astor place side,” read the Courant on May 12. Policemen armed with short clubs tried to control the rioters, but the violence spread well into the streets. By the end, close to two dozen New Yorkers were dead.
Once back in Britain, Macready wrote in his diary, “Delighted—constantly did the thought, the sense of delight recur to me—to find myself in England, to find myself under the security of law and order and free from the brutal and beastly savages who sought my life in the United States. Thank God!”
In September, a court convicted 10 rioters in a 15-day trial before Judge Charles Patrick Daly in New York, and sentenced them to imprisonment and a $250 fine. The matter was closed, but the scars never left the Astor Place Opera house, and in the aftermath of the tragedy, in 1854, the building was sold to the Clinton Hall Association. As reported by the New York Times on June 1 of that year, the Association bought the site for $140,000 to serve as the new home for the Mercantile Library.
Founded in 1820 and originally housed on Fulton Street, the Mercantile Library began as a place for the growing population of merchant clerks and business owners in New York to convene and become educated for success in the mercantile trade. It later expanded into a cultural institution, and by the time it moved to Astor Place, the library was hosting lectures by famous writers such as Oliver Wendell Holmes and William Makepeace Thackeray.
The Times reported that the library’s new digs in “Clinton Hall” included a room with space for 120,000 volumes, a reading room capable of accommodating 500 people, as well as a lecture hall and classrooms, all available for use for a $100 subscription.
The library continued to grow in popularity over the next several decades, and in 1890 the old Opera House was torn down to accommodate the library’s need for more space. Also of consideration was that the building as it was could not withstand a fire. “The Mercantile Library needs a new home,” the New York Tribune reported on March 9 of that year, “and a fireproof building will be seen in Astor Place within a year, where the literary treasures, so long in danger of going up in smoke, may rest secure from all enemies but the bookworm.”
The new fireproof structure of brick and red sandstone, standing seven stories high, and designed by George Harney, was opened on November 9, 1891. “Thousands visited the new home of the library during the day,” reported the New York Times on November 10, “And as many as could find accommodation waited to take part in the formal opening.” That is where the library would remain for the next 41 years.
In 1894, a cataloguer at the library named Charles Brun went missing. On March 4 of that year, the New York Times reported that he had been courting a woman for the past decade and, at the time of his disappearance, was set to marry her in the coming weeks. It’s been speculated that he fled New York to escape his engagement, as it was later revealed that Brun already had a wife and daughter living in Belgium. His body was later found in the Charles River in Boston, at which time the Lewiston Daily Sun reported that, “Brun shot himself in the head with a 32-calibre revolver bullet and then fell overboard.”
That wouldn’t be the last misfortune tied to the building. In 1920, it was sold to a holding company named 13 Astor Place, Inc. for about $600,000, as reported by the New York Times. The library remained a tenant, sharing the space with the Alexander Hamilton Institute, among other organizations, and two stories were added to the building.
On January 9, 1926, about 100 students at the Institute were trapped on the newly constructed ninth floor when the basement caught fire.
As the Times reported, smoke spilled out into Astor Place, prompting a passerby to turn in an alarm, which alerted the fire department. “Owing to the fact that smoke had mushroomed up the stairways and made exit risky the firemen advised the students to remain in the class rooms,” the Times wrote. Deputy Chief Martin instructed the firemen run the hose in through the 8th Street entrance, and later told the newspaper that the entire building might have been endangered had they tried to enter at Astor Place. He put the estimated damage at about $10,000.
In 1932, the Alexander Hamilton Institute announced plans to move to 23rd Street. And the Mercantile Library headed north to East 47th. The building then became home to District 65, an autoworkers union founded in the 1930s. The union grew to over 15,000 members in the 1940s, and later began representing workers in other fields, such as publishing and academia. It remained in the space until 1993, when the union went bankrupt. As reported by Newsday, the Manhattan Life Insurance Company held a $3.2 million balloon loan on the building, which the union was unable to pay. David Livingston, the union’s then 78-year-old president, told the newspaper that the Chapter 11 filing was necessary to keep Manhattan Life from foreclosing on the building. It was then put up for auction in bankruptcy court, adding yet another line item to its sordid past.
Newsday said the winning bid for the historic building came from The Astor Restoration Co.—which is code for “a bunch of developers.” It marked the building’s foray into the new East Village, where the once bohemian streets that inspired Broadway shows like Rent began swelling with posh apartments and hotels. From then on, the historic building became a chess piece for real estate moguls looking to cash in—the rioters had lost for good this time.
In 2002, El-Ad Properties, led by Miki Naftali, bought the building and spent $63 million renovating it, equipping it with 50 loft condos that carried seven-figure price tags. “The apartments in Naftali’s project came outfitted with sliding room dividers, 15-foot ceilings, double-entry doors finished in zebrawood, closets constructed of semi-opaque glass and cantilevered staircases,” reported the Observer. El-Ad kept the retail space on the bottom floor, where the Starbucks is today.
Such luxury is now emblematic of the area around the old Clinton Hall (also known as 13 Astor Place and 21 Astor Place). Pricey condos are just steps from tattoo parlors on St. Marks that recall the grittiness of the East Village from long ago. Techies are moving in, with Facebook and AOL planting offices nearby. It is home to Charles Gwathmey’s “Sculpture for Living” building and Edward Minskoff’s soaring tower at 51 Astor Place. The posh Standard hotel is just a few blocks over and down. Meanwhile, prices are skyrocketing. In 2011, Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, sold his $3.225 million duplex at 21 Astor Place. He’d bought the apartment in 2009, and his profit? Nearly $1 million.
“We feel like we’re a community under siege,” Anna Sawaryn, an East Village artist, told the Observer back in 2004. “The East Village was the only place left in Manhattan where a designer could open up shop in the neighborhood. Now rents are going up and they can’t afford to be here.”
As of now, the average list price for a condo in the building, with options of one to four bedrooms, is about $3 million.
It’s a familiar story, but change is nothing new for the Clinton Hall building. George Harney’s masterpiece stood above the neighborhood long before the tattoo parlors were even there. And this fight isn’t a new one for the building, either—it traces its history back to a similar argument, one also wrought with tensions over wealth and grit in New York City. It seems that Team Forrest and Team Macready are alive and well in the East Village.
Only one slight trace of the building’s history remains. Below ground, at the southbound entrance to the 6-train station at Astor Place, there is a blocked up doorway. Above it, the sign reads, “Clinton Hall.”