Research Question Essay: Webster Hall As a Mirror for Greenwich Village

Revised

Webster Hall underwent a variety of uses and transformations since its opening in 1887, and each iteration of the Hall reflected the needs and culture of the surrounding Greenwich Village area. Through all the changing in hands of ownership, fires, and events held there, Webster Hall stood the test of time and remains an integral part of Greenwich Village. Due to the significance it has had for the area, it seemed sensible to explore the Hall’s history and place in the Village.

Each era of Webster Hall reflected both the times and the people of Greenwich Village. When it first opened in 1886 the Hall was utilized as a meeting place. Working class families predominately resided in the area during that time and through the end of the 19th century, so they hosted events such as weddings, receptions, and balls there. During the same time, the Hall became a favored location for leftists, anarchists, and people who were generally raging against the machine. Labor union rallies and marches by prominent female activists such as Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger took place at Webster Hall in the early 1900s. The 1920s brought a time of freer inhibitions, and as a result Webster Hall’s events changed to accommodate the new culture. Masquerades became prevalent along with drag balls, allowing the LGBT community to also have a place to go. During this time the Hall gained the nickname “The Devil’s Playhouse.” After downtime following fires, the 1950s saw a rise in the folk and jazz scene of Greenwich Village and Webster Hall’s purchase by RCA, which turned it into a recording studio. Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra, to name a few, along with musical productions recorded albums here. This time was the first move towards a music emphasis in Webster Hall. MTV briefly owned the hall and rebranded it as “The Ritz” for their shows and concerts during the 1980s. Finally, the Hall came back to its original name in the 1990s and focused on being a music venue and nigh club along with having events still hosted there occasionally. Each change in the purposes Webster Hall was used for had some environmental or cultural reason, so the Hall almost became a mirror for Greenwich Village.

Other historians laid out the different uses Webster Hall had, and I brought those various eras together. The bulk of my research came from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation due to their extensive history they created for the landmark report. The report served as the foundation of my research, and then I sought out other historical works that would further explore the different aspects of Webster Hall. Studio Stories by Dave Simons highlighted the Hall’s time as an RCA recording studio, so his work supplemented that part of my research. Several books on New York landmarks and architecture (Excelsior Editions: Landmarks of New York by Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel and Hidden New York: A Guide to Places that Matter) aided in reinforcing and expanding upon the history of Webster Hall, and Webster Hall’s website features a history page that also provided added information to my research. Work on labor history and LGBT history also helped. A few historians work provided the basics and then each subject needed more research to expand upon it.

The exhibit will be structured by the uses and iterations of Webster Hall. The first few pages of the exhibit will cover the beginnings of the Hall when it was first constructed and then also feature a timeline. Next will be a focus on different groups that used it as a meeting space for rallies like the labor unions and Communist Party. The next section will then cover the early 20th century and the events that left Webster Hall with the nickname “The Devil’s Playground.” As the focus started to be on music at the Hall, the next section will reflect that with pages on RCA, MTV, and its return to concerts. Finally, Webster Hall today will be discussed along with its achieved landmark status. For the most part the exhibit will be chronological due to how each purpose it served occurred at a specific time in history.


Original

When I first started researching what topic I wanted to focus my exhibit on, I decided on the various music venues in Greenwich Village from the three main genres that seem to have been prevalent in the area: jazz, folk, and punk/rock. This eventually seemed like too broad of a topic for an exhibit, as there would probably be too many aspects to cover in one project. Now, I have narrowed down the scope to one specific venue that interests me, Webster Hall, which is on 125 East 11th Street. Initially, Webster Hall started as a general events venue that hosted labor union rallies and bohemian parties, and it eventually became more centered on hosting concerts during the mid-20th century and remains a frequent stop for popular musicians who come through New York City today.

Webster Hall has been a part of several significant periods through New York City’s history. When it opened at the end of the 19th century, Webster Hall held rallies for different labor unions and committees. During the early 1900s, Webster Hall became home to events for bohemians and extravagant parties and masquerades, which were frequented by famous authors and artists of that era. Starting in the 1950s as the music scene in Greenwich Village grew, artists from different genres from folk to Latin began performing there, and a wide array of musicians recorded albums there. In the more recent years, several of my favorite bands have played Webster Hall and it has become a New York City landmark thanks to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

So far, I have been exploring different newspaper articles announcing rallies and meetings at Webster Hall in the late 1800s and early 1900s as primary sources. As I continue to research, I am hoping to find more pictures from some of the masquerades and parties as well as first-hand accounts from those who attended. Also, I am looking for posters advertising concerts. As for secondary sources, there are numerous news articles and reviews written about the venue that I want to draw from as well as what various musical artists say about performing there.

In order to complete the exhibit, I need to continue to do extensive research to find more sources to draw from as well as different items, such as images, audio, and video, to utilize to tell the story of Webster Hall. Possibly, I also hope to reach out to the venue and see if they will be able add anything to this exhibit. I want to have sections on each era that it has gone through: political meeting/rally venue, bohemian and prohibition, and then finally as a music venue and club. Hopefully, I will be able to find everything I need to create a history of Webster Hall.

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