Webster Hall, A Place That Matters
December 7th, 2009, 1:09 pm
Although now known for its dance nights and rock concerts, Webster Hall is in fact an incredibly culturally significant site. Designed as a “hall for hire” in 1886 by Charles Rentz, Webster Hall was available for rental by diverse groups from its inception. For more than 120 years, the Queen Anne-style assembly hall, located at 119-125 East 11th Street, has hosted a wide array of events, including debutante balls, society dinners, wrestling matches, political rallies, union meetings, bohemian costume parties and musical performances. Political parties, movements and figures were an important part of Webster Hall’s activities. In 1892, two different groups met at Webster Hall to endorse presidential candidate Grover Cleveland, and Emma Goldman was a frequent orator there in the early 20th century. In 1912, activist Margaret Sanger fed 119 children at the hall because their millworker parents had been on strike for weeks in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Webster Hall was also where the founding convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) took place in December 1914; where the defense committee for Sacco and Vanzetti met in the 1920s; where anti-Fascists adopted a resolution condemning Mussolini in 1930; and where sixty German-American organizations congregated to pledge their loyalty to the U.S. in 1942. In the late-19th century through the decades before World War II, Webster Hall was not only famous for politics, but also for parties. Masquerade balls hosted by the progressive and socialist magazine, The Masses, and by the Liberal Club, helped to solidify Greenwich Village’s reputation as a nonconformist neighborhood. Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Stella, Man Ray, Charles Demuth, and F. Scott Fitzgerald all attended parties at this time. In addition, Webster Hall became a place where gays and lesbians could openly express themselves — they attended parties in drag and even threw their own events. Prohibition did not necessarily put a damper on the festivities either. Webster Hall still served ample liquor, and the parties continued unabated. Following the Great Depression and World War II, the space acquired a new prominence as a music venue. It was where emerging Latin artists like Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez performed in 1949, and later where Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie played for many of the People’s Artists hootenannies. In 1953, RCA Victor Records installed a recording studio in the space, which was renowned for its acoustics. Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, and Stan Getz all recorded at the studios. Several musical scores, including Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof, were also recorded on site. On May 1, 1980, Webster Hall became a night club and was renamed “The Ritz.” In this incarnation, the roster of high profile performers included Madonna, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Prince, Sting, Guns N’ Roses, and KISS, among many others. In 1990, the building was purchased by club owners from Toronto, and the venue was re-dedicated as “Webster Hall.” In March 2008, the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission recognized Webster Hall’s importance as “one of New York City’s most historically and culturally significant large nineteenth-century assembly halls” with landmark designation. More information and historic photographs of the building can be found in the LPC’s designation report and in the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s request for designation submission. To see the entry for Webster Hall, log on to Place Matters or see the Place Matters’ guidebook, Hidden New York: A Guide to Places that Matter. Please tell your friends about these places of history, memory, and culture and invite them to join the Place Matters e-mail list.