This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
New York City publisher Horace Greeley considered the Academy of Music opera house so ugly that he is reported to have asked how much it would cost to burn the place down. “If the price is not unreasonable,” he is said to have declared, “have it done and send me the bill.” Greeley got his wish in 1866, but the opera was rebuilt. Fifty more years would pass before the Academy of Music — the largest opera in the world when it opened 1854 — was finally demolished.
The Academy of Music never really died, though. When the opera house was torn down in 1926, movie mogul William Fox built a large theater across the street at 126 14th Street and adopted the Academy of Music’s name. The building, which had previously been a church and later a controversial beer garden and theater, would in time become the Palladium — one of the city’s best-known rock-and-roll venues and nightclubs.
The history of that building — Palladium, the second coming of the Academy of Music — tells the ever-changing story of popular entertainment in this city: from theater to vaudeville, silent films to kung-fu flicks, rock-and-roll to electronic music. Booze, drugs and sex are central to the story, as is money — lots and lots of money.
Eventually, New York University, one of the city’s largest property owners, swallowed the building whole. The university demolished the existing structure and in 2011 built a dormitory whose ugliness undoubtedly has Greeley rolling in his grave. In 2006, a Trader Joe’s occupied the first floor.
But Palladium’s story doesn’t end with the building’s conversion to dorm rooms atop one of the East Village’s many chain stores — nor, for that matter, does it begin with the opera house’s opulent 1854 construction. The history of a building includes so much more than just the history of that particular space — it can never be a story that is geographically static.
So, to understand the history of the Palladium, you really have to start with the two Academies of Music — the opera house and the later movie theater. But to understand those institutions, we have to go all the way back to the bloody Astor Place Riot of 1849 — an event that took place just a few blocks south of the future Palladium and scared the city’s gentry into moving their opulent opera house to 14th street in the first place.
Theater in the 19th century was the most popular form of mass entertainment, and a space where the audience expressed their emotions physically. The theater was a place to be entertained, but also functioned as a meeting place for the community. Theater riots were actually surprisingly common occurrences in those days, and grew increasingly hostile as working-class politics became more militant.
The Astor Place Riot, however, stood out as a particularly violent clash between rich and poor. The massive opera house had been boldly built at the confluence of the working-class Bowery and the elite’s Broadway — a spiteful affront to the poor. What’s more, the venue catered almost exclusively to the city’s super-rich.
The riot broke out during a performance of Macbeth starring the English-born actor William Charles Macready that ran parallel to another starring American-born actor Edwin Forrest, who embodied the spirit of the city’s working class.
The class tensions boiled over on Macready’s first night, when working-class fans hissed at him from the balcony, turning food and the theater’s seats into projectiles aimed at the stage. On Macready’s second night, the fatal riot took place.
The opera house never recovered; it was nicknamed DisAster Place, and was closed soon after. However, the Astor Place Opera House’s ghost stayed around, floating uptown to haunt 14th Street, where the city’s terrified upper class decided to move their opera house in 1854. Thus was born the Academy of Music opera house.
Although the Astor Place Riot forced elites to discuss democratizing their theaters, very little was actually done; the Academy of Music’s 18 boxes and red plush seats were still almost exclusively the domain of rich, white, old-monied families invested in the status quo. In the wake of John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, for example, thousands of businessmen met at the Academy of Music to denounce the slave revolt and proclaim their unyielding support of slavery.
In her classic gilded-age novel The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton describes why the Academy of Music was so popular with the city’s old money. “Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the ‘new people’ whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.”
Fourteenth Street at that time was in the process of transforming into a middle-class shopping paradise. Beginning around 1860, shops like Brentano’s and Tiffany’s began moving into the neighborhood; the area became the center of the Ladies’ Mile shopping district. Store and theater owners were beginning to realize that there was much to gain by appealing to middle-class sensibilities, so as to draw in more money to the area.
In the wake of the Civil War, however, there was a darker tension pulling 14th Street away from middle-class values. The area had by then also become a debaucherous theater district where booze and sex were the main attractions. The Gentlemen’s Directory, a popular 1870 guidebook for Manhattan’s many brothels, lists a large number of bordellos in the blocks surrounding 14th Street. The Academy of Music was no stranger to the crazed party atmosphere. From Edwin G. Burrows’ and Mike Wallace’s Gotham:
[The musical ensemble] Cercle Francais de l’Harmonie started hosting wild parties at the Academy of Music, New York’s sanctum sanctorum of high culture. Nouveau riche Wall Street brokers in fancy dress rubbed elbows and much else with the city’s assembled demimondaines, attired in costumes that exposed much, if not all, of their persons. As the champagne flowed, modesty was abandoned and the parties escalated to Mardi Gras levels.
So, on the one hand, theaters were beginning to realize the potential of appealing to middle-class families with clean fun. On the other hand, the city’s rich headed in the opposite direction, indulging in alcohol-fueled parties at the Academy and nearby institutions.
Central to the Academy of Music’s appeal to the city’s rich was its exclusivity. The unmoving desire to keep the city’s nouveau riche Jay Gatsbys out of the Academy of Music, however, would eventually be the opera’s death.
William H. Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s son, reportedly offered $30,000 for a box seat at the Academy of Music in 1880 and was denied, according to Burrows and Wallace. Hell hath no fury like a gilded-age nouveau riche New Yorker scorned. After being shut out of the opera, Vanderbilt got together emerging corporate leaders — his sons, J.P. Morgan, William Rockefeller, Jay Gould, just to name a few — and set out to build a bigger opera house that would kill the Academy of Music.
Being the powerful men they were, they succeeded. The Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1883, and from then on it was a slow death for the Academy of Music. The top opera talent migrated in droves to the newer, nicer theater, leaving the Academy of Music to rot. Its last opera was in 1885.
The theater began offering vaudeville shows in 1888, a more working-class form of entertainment that brought together a bafflingly wide variety of acts on one stage: minstrel musicians, dancers, comedians, magicians, circus entertainers, animals. Everything. Theater posters from the period show blackface comedians, half-naked women, musicians and celebrities.
The building just across the street from the dying Academy of Music was also a major player in the burgeoning vaudeville scene: the Dewey Theatre. It’s this building that, when the Academy opera house was finally demolished in 1926, would next be inhabited by our story’s wandering ghost.
The Dewey Theatre was owned by Timothy Sullivan, a top political figure in the influential Tammany Hall. In his biography of Sullivan titled King of Bowery, historian Richard F. Welch describes the theater’s success: “Although—or perhaps because—some critics denounced the performances of the scantily dressed chorus girls as immoral, the Dewey became Union Square’s most popular theater, netting Sullivan $25,000 a year.”
Hoping to get in on the expanding theater business in the area, the Dewey Theatre’s shows were risqué. The New York Times even remarked on August 13, 1916, that “the character of its plays brought it into occasional difficulties with the Police Department.”
In a 1915 case in the city’s Court of Appeals, an owner of property in the area alleged that booze was the primary function of the theater. “Liquors were sold and the instrumental music and vocal selections were rendered incidentally to the sale of liquor,” he said, though his testimony is obviously biased. As the owner of nearby property, he feared that the re-opening of the Dewey would “materially lessen the taxable value of theatres in the vicinity and reduce the assessed valuation thereof.” The defendants, furthermore, alleged that he was trying to weed out competition by keeping other theaters out of the area.
The Dewey’s clientele were largely immigrants from below 14th Street who came to hear music, see scantily clad women and drink beer. Famous entertainers, however, also performed there, such as the Yiddish theatre star Sarah Levitzka Adler.
Soon, however, the economic power of New York City’s rising middle classes came to fundamentally change the nature of vaudeville. Though it was once a form of entertainment aimed at a exclusively male audience, businessmen soon began to realize that more money could be made by appealing to middle-class families and their increasing purchasing power.
The “Father of Vaudeville” Tony Pastor, for example, showed theater owners how profitable it was to appeal to both men and women with clean entertainment devoid of the vulgarities that had previously defined the genre. In 1881, Pastor took over Bryant’s Minstrel Hall just down the street from the Dewey, and for several decades turned it into one of the most successful vaudeville theaters in the country.
Soon, Sullivan and his business partner George Krause too moved away from the wild beer-hall crowds and into the business of attracting the middle class. Their most profitable venture, however, came not from vaudeville, but from the wildly popular new form of entertainment that would come to redefine the neighborhood — movies.
The latest trend, the newspaper continued, was motion pictures. “In its turn the moving picture show, the latest turn in the wheel of the cheap showman’s fortune, has come to drive the vaudeville out.”
The king of the movie theater industry in New York City was William Fox, a man who leased the Dewey Theatre from Sullivan in 1908 and the Academy of Music opera house in 1910, and whose influence can still be seen across the world today as the namesake of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
Movies first started to be shown in vaudeville theaters like the Academy of Music and the Dewey Theater, as well as in the cheap, working-class “nickelodeon” theaters that gained popularity in the beginning of the 20th century. The nickelodeons, however, were rowdy places, and Fox quickly realized the potential of middle-class money meant that movie houses should be cleaned up.
Fox first began showing motion pictures along with the other acts in vaudeville theaters, but when the Dewey Theater was condemned as a fire hazard in 1916, it set in motion a grand plan: to build a massive movie theater. When the Academy of Music opera house was finally demolished in 1926, Fox coaxed that building’s ghost across the street, where he had managed to build the new 3,600 person Academy of Music movie theater, designed by the legendary theater architect Thomas Lamb.
The Great Depression hit Fox hard, and he soon lost his newly built Academy of Music movie theater and his entire empire of other movie houses. Fox sunk so low that, at his bankruptcy hearing in 1936, he even tried to bribe the judge — an act that landed him in prison for six months.
Nevertheless, the building began to lead a fascinating life with multiple personalities. Movies — feature films, kung-fu flicks and the occasional porno — were continuously run until the late ’70s, and vaudeville even stayed around in some fashion until 1953. More significantly, other entertainment began to take over the venue.
In 1959, The New York Times reported that the theater began the first of 35 weekly boxing matches. The reporter, James F. Lynch, described the crowd as “a vocal group…with craggy features, soiled windbreakers and cigars indelibly stamping the fans as the same fight followers who patronize the bouts at St. Nicks, the Garden or wherever there is ring action.”
In 1971 the legendary rock-and-roll venue the Fillmore East closed its doors, and the Academy of Music began hosting that era’s new popular form of entertainment — rock concerts. Because it was the only real mid-sized rock venue in the city after the Fillmore’s closing, some of the most famous bands of the era played at the Academy: Black Sabbath, The Grateful Dead, KISS, Iggy and the Stooges, Lou Reed. Films were still shown during the daytime.
The theater was eventually reopened on September 18, 1976 as the newly named Palladium rock venue — complete with a beautiful art-deco marquee. The opening act was The Band, whose roots melodies baptized the stage in what was the group’s second-to-last gig — the show before their famous final performance that was captured in the Martin Scorsese documentary The Last Waltz.
By that time, however, the theater — like the neighborhood it sat in — was in desperate need of a facelift. By the 1960s and 1970s, The Encyclopedia of New York City described the Union Square neighborhood as “overrun by derelicts and drug dealers.” Daily News journalist Ernest Leogrande said of the Academy on January 24, 1976 that “in its slow physical deterioration, the setting got grimier and in its rock concert life the accumulation of spilled soda on the floor was so sticky it impeded movement, contributing to its sometime nickname of Dirty Howie’s,” in reference to show promoter Howard Stein.
It took the death of rock-and-roll for Palladium to be refurbished in the 1980s, when the whole neighborhood saw a “cleanup” effort. Just as community groups, businesses and the city began refurbishing the Union Square park in 1984, Palladium itself was in the process of getting a new-age facelift.
Palladium re-opened yet again in 1985 as a disco nightclub owned by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, who were riding high on the success of their other club: the world-famous Studio 54. Arata Isozaki, the eminent Japanese architect, designed the interior, which featured crumbling vestiges of the theater’s history juxtaposed with 80s chic, like two banks of 25 television screens facing each other. Palladium’s opening was the social event of the year; Christopher Reeve, Boy George, Matt Dillon, Jean‑Michel Basquiat and loads of other celebrities attended the lavish party; Andy Warhol designed the drink tickets, and a larger-than-life vagina was occasionally displayed over all 50 TV screens.
The dance floor is remembered for being a racially diverse place that filled up to the rhythms of a new kind of music pushing rock-and-roll and disco off of dance floors across the country: house music and the newly emerging genre of hip hop.
The popularity of nightclubs, however, is always ephemeral. Palladium was an A-list party throughout the ‘80s, but in the ‘90s the club lost its appeal. A bouncer was shot to death outside the club on November 23, 1990. The club was sold to Peter Gatien, who in 1996 was arrested as part of an Ecstasy-pill ring that centered around two of his other nightclubs, Limelight and Tunnel.
The building’s final years, however, were the perfectly climatic end to a place that had seen some of New York City’s most raucous parties. DJ Junior Vasquez began throwing his infamous Arena parties, remembered as wonderfully debaucherous events, at the venue from 1996 until 1997, the year Palladium closed. From Saturday night until Sunday morning, a diverse crowd filled the club that was promoted as “The Gay Man’s Pleasure Dome.” Clubbers swayed to the influence of ’90s techno– and likely ’90s Ecstasy, if Palladium was anything like Gatien’s other clubs.
The once seedy Union Square area gradually ceded to the pressures of skyrocketing rents and “urban renewal” initiatives. What had been at various times a center of working-class militant protests, a vibrant theater district and a hedonistic collection of nightclubs has now become a showcase for America’s behemoth chain stores. Barnes and Noble and Whole Foods bookend the north and south sides of the park, and just down the street Palladium Hall dorms sit atop a Trader Joe’s.
The ghost of Astor Place Opera House, which passed through the Academy of Music opera house on its way to the property, is now homeless, kicked out of the neighborhood by gentrification. TGI Fridays and Babies R’ Us rule the day now.
However, if you listen hard enough, you can hear that spirit still alive amid the towering commercial buildings. It has been buried underground, in Union Square’s subway stop — arguably most musical of all the subway stops in New York City. Just below the Best Buy, Citibank and the Burlington Coat Factory, the music still breathes.