Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The 1929 Tammany Hall -- No. 100 East 17th Street


photo by Alice Lum
At the end of the 19th century, Tammany Hall was nothing like the benevolent organization organized in Philadelphia in the 18th century.  By the time a New York branch was formed The Society of St. Tammany, or Columbia Order, had spread throughout New England.

It was not until the presidential campaign of 1800 that Tammany involved itself in politics, actively supporting the Jefferson-Burr ticket.  A year later the first New York Tammany Hall was erected, on Frankfort and Nassau Streets.  It was replaced when the organization moved northward and opened the new Hall on July 4, 1868 on 14th Street.

By the turn of the century Tammany Hall was hugely powerful and often corrupt.  It was in total control of the Democratic Party in New York County and often raised the wrath of reformers and religious leaders alike.

In the 1920s Governor Al Smith joined in an attempt to reform Tammany Hall.  Nightlife-loving Mayor Jimmy Walker’s open defiance of Prohibition offended the governor.  The battle between the two politicians shook the foundations of Tammany.  According to Mary M. Stolberg in her Fighting Organized Crime,  “By 1929 the split between Smith and Walker had further weakened Tammany Hall.”

One of Walker’s counte rmoves was to abandon the old Tammany Hall—a symbol of graft and corruption.  Three blocks to the north, opposite the northeast corner of Union Square, sat the Westmoreland Apartments, constructed as a hotel in 1877.  The old structure was razed in 1928 to make way for a new patriotic-themed hall Tammany Hall.

Wide World Photos published a view of the anticipated structure in August 1928 entitled "The New Home of the Society of Tammany" (copyright expired)
Architects Thompson, Holmes & Converse in conjunction with Charles B. Meyers reached back to the organization’s early Federalist roots.  The Union Square elevation was meant to invoke the original Federal Hall where George Washington had taken the Oath of Office.  Typical neo-Georgian and neo-Federal elements distinguished the design and reflected Colonial America.  The bricks were custom-made in Virginia and a 1929 advertisement by the Old Virginia Brick Company in Salem, Virginia, stressed the patriotic theme:

“How fitting, therefore, that in this building should be used bricks made in the Virginia Jefferson so proudly served.  Likewise in the same size, and made in the same kind of cherry and maple moulds as those of his beloved Monticello, 30 years in its building, and where Jefferson lived for a full half century.”

High on the 17th Street side a carved plaque sits against the custom-made Flemish bond brickwork -- photo by Alice Lum

Not everything would look back to the Jefferson period.  Inside, the black marble floor, the wrought iron railings and curved staircase were rescued from the old 14th Street Hall.  The interiors were furnished with reproduction Empire period furniture, white enameled paneling and mahogany woodwork.

The official opening of the new building, which cost $350,000, was held on July 4, 1929.  Interestingly, the now-Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt shared the spotlight as chief speaker with Alfred E. Smith.  Both Roosevelt and Smith were Democrats; but both shared their ardent disdain of Tammany Hall. 

In 1929 Manufacturers Trust Company took space at street level.  Note the clever adaptation of fan lights into the square openings.  photo from the collection of the New York Public Library

The year following the new building’s completion Governor Roosevelt instigated an investigation into the scandals and alleged corruption.  The heretofore highly popular Mayor Walker was forced to resign in dishonor and Samuel Seabury, who headed the magistrates’ courts, suddenly resigned due to “ill-health.”

Things only got worse for Tammany Hall when Roosevelt became President in 1932.  And in 1933 the new mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, joined forces with the President to take apart the Tammany organization. 

In 1939 the Federal Writers’ Project’s New York City Guide remarked “When the organization wins at the polls, club leaders and district workers swarm to the Hall for a rousing election night celebration, but such joyful gatherings have been infrequent in recent years.”

A terra cotta medallion depicts a "Liberty Cap."  -- photo by Alice Lum
By 1943 the diluted organization could no longer afford to pay the mortgage on Tammany Hall.  That summer it sold the building to Local 91 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  The Union made interior alterations to accommodate its needs.  Offices were built out and the auditorium stage was enlarged.  It was officially opened with a concert and dedication ceremony on December 18, 1943.  Ironically both Jimmy Walker and Fiorello LaGuardia were there.  Sharing space did not mean that the pair had reconciled, however.

LaGuardia told reporters “This building was built under the Walker Administration and put out of business—or on the bum—by the LaGuardia Administration.”  He added “You know, I wouldn’t change the name of the building…I would keep it as a permanent monument to the change that came for the City of New York when a mighty, ruthless organization lost the building to an organization of the people.”

In 1947 Local 91 dedicated the 1000-seat auditorium to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, renaming it the Roosevelt Auditorium.  For years its use was offered to other unions and organizations for meetings and rallies.  On March 16, 1983 cabdrivers voted on a strike here; on December 30, 1981 cemetery workers authorized their strike against 70 cemeteries; and on October 29, 1964 firemen turned down the $900 pay increase which had been accepted by the NYPD.  That same month 250 delegates of the Teamsters Union ignored the pressure from Jimmy Hoffa and voted to endorse John F. Kennedy for President.

By 1962 the auditorium was also being used by the “Roosevelt Yiddish Theater.”  Here Max Perlman produced plays like Don’t Worry, Brother, and A Honeymoon in Israel

In 1984 the Roudabout Theater signed a long-term lease for the auditorium with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  The theater group was at the time at No. 333 West 23rd Street.  It commissioned architect Robert Asscione to refurbish the interior structure.

“The auditorium will be renovated for the Roundabout company into a 499-seat facility with no seat more than 40 feet from the stage,” reported William G. Blair of The New York Times on July 1, 1984.

The $850,000 in renovations were completed  early in 1985 and the opening was held on February 1.  In attendance were E. G. Marshall, Jim Dale, Kate Burton and Tovah Feldshuh among others.  On February 13 the first production was staged, Playboy of the Western World.  Over the near few years significant performances and productions included A Man for All Seasons starting Philip Bosco and Charles Keating; Dorothy Laudon in The Matchmaker; Room Service, directed by Alan Arkin and starring Mark Hamill, and a revival of Raisin in the Sun which was aired by PBS in 1986.

Following the Roundabout, the auditorium was leased somewhat briefly to Raymond L. Gaspard.  His Union Square Theater staged eight productions.  Then in 1994 the New York Film Academy leased space here.  The film and acting school had been founded two years earlier by producer Jerry Sherlock.   Its graduates have included comedians Damon Wayans and Damon Wayans, Jr.; actress and figure skater Sasha Cohen; and “Glee” actor Chord Overstreet.
 
Above the entrance "The Society of Tammany" is carved into the stonework.  photo by Alice Lum
In 2001, after nearly 60 years of ownership, Local 91 sold the building to Liberty Theatres, Inc.  In 2013 it was designated a New York City Landmark.  Although retail spaces have been carved out of the rusticated limestone base, above street level the handsome Federal design survives.  It is the last relic of a political organization that tried hard, and unsuccessfully, to disguise its gang-like activities behind a patriotic veil.

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