Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Corner

The Corner circa 1998.
The Corner being renovated as The Corner Cafe in October 2009.
The Corner Cafe in May 2011.
A closeup of the cornice in 1986.
The plaques on the side of the building.
The building in the '30s, with the 6th Avenue elevated train being taken down.
The Corner's interior in 1892.
The Corner in 1892.
The plaque commemorating Edison's presentation of the motion picture by the front door of Macy's.
The front door of Macy's on 34th Street.
A side door that once led to the theatre is long cemented over.

The interior of the theater on 23rd Street in the 1890s.
Another view of the long-sealed side door on 24th Street.
Whenever I'm walking down lower 6th Avenue, I always stop to take a look at a building on the corner of 24th Street with a colorful history.  Koster & Bial's "The Corner" was built in 1887 as a beer hall annex to the concert hall a block south.  The building is mostly unnoticed by passers-by today, but the upper levels have just recently received some renovations and cleaning, revealing it's original bright-orange brick color. 

Bryant's Opera House, built in 1870 next to the French Catholic Church of St. Vincent de Paul (where singer Edith Piaff married in the the 1960s), was one of the most popular nightlife spots on 23rd Street, which was the theatre district at that time, and featured the highly elaborate Bryant's Minstrels, who were known mostly for introducing New York City to many Stephen Foster songs such as "Dixie".  The concert venue was put up for sale in 1878 and bought by German-born business partners Albert Bial and John Koster, who previously ran a German-style beer garden and concert hall next store.  From the beginning, Koster and Bial were interested in the alcohol-distributing business, and side-stepped a law prohibiting its sale in theaters by replacing the curtain in front of the stage with a folding screen, thus making the place a restaurant that offered entertainment rather than a theatre that served alcohol.  Their business grew in popularity, and they hired German architects Herman J. Schwarzman and Albert Buchman to build a beer hall annex to the theatre a block north, which opened on January 25, 1887.  The four-story building with brownstone and terra cotta trim was dubbed "The Corner" and ornamented with a cornice on top and plaques with whimsical late-Victorian lettering that doubled as street signs.  They began running into trouble, though, when police busted a prostitution ring in the "cork room", an after-hours lounge that connected the theater to The Corner and only served champaign. 

The theater was forced to close in 1893, but by teaming up with Oscar Hammerstein that same year, their new music hall was opened on 34th Street and Broadway, in a more fashionable area.  The prominent duo's successful formula of variety acts and alcoholic beverages was once again a hit uptown, and in April of 1896 Thomas Edison introduced the United States to the motion picture in the new theater with the unveiling of his Vitascope.

However, Koster & Bial's Music Hall closed in 1902, and as the city's shopping district migrated uptown, Macy's latest building went up, and remains to this day the largest store in the world.  However, a plaque commemorating Edison's demonstration in 1896 can be seen by the door.  The old theatre on 23rd Street was demolished in 1924 and a Chase Bank now stands in its place, but the beer hall annex on 24th Street has quietly remained, with a number of businesses moving in and out, the most famous of these being Billy's Topless from 1970-2001.  It's featured in the 1998 movie "Rounders", where Ed Norton gets beat up by a former business partner (after Matt Damon gets into a fight with his girlfriend outside of McSorley's).  I added a link below.  Historians nostalgic for old New York remember the place as being a Chelsea fixture that never had any complaints from neighbors, didn't have a cover charge, and catered to regular girls who might not get hired in the city's more upscale clubs.  But Mayor Giuliani called the city's adult entertainment market a "corrosive institution", and worked hard to shut down these places, mainly in Times Square, but also holdovers in other parts of the city like this one.  A law was passed stating that an adult establishment could not be within 500 feet of an apartment building, school, or house of worship.

Now it houses The Corner Cafe, a bagel and pizza shop that pays tribute to the building's original name.  Next time you're in the Chelsea area, stop and check out this quaint old building with a very rich history.

No comments:

Post a Comment