Why Did the Grand Prospect Hall Have to Die?

Why Did the Grand Prospect Hall Have to Die?

In all likelihood, the Grand Prospect Hall—a New York City night-life hub for more than a century, a listee on the National Register of Historic Places since 1999, the first commercial building in the borough of Brooklyn to be fully wired for electricity, the subject of an immortally kitschy series of nineteen-eighties TV commercials, and the site of countless weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, corporate confabs, community board meetings, New York Fire and Police Department parties, charity galas, masked balls, and the William Alexander Middle School’s 1997 eighth-grade prom—will be demolished by the end of the year. The four-story, French Renaissance-style building was sold, for more than twenty-two million dollars, to a real-estate developer who plans to raze it for condos. The interior has already been destroyed—including the ten-thousand-square-foot grand ballroom, which, over the years, variously served as a silent-movie house, vaudeville stage, political-rally hall (William Jennings Bryan and Eugene V. Debs both campaigned for President there), opera venue (Al Capone was a regular), and boxing ring.

“Prospect Hall deserved to be landmarked,” Simeon Bankoff, a former executive director of the Historic Districts Council, one of the city’s leading nonprofit preservationist groups, told me. The hall was even home to the first birdcage elevator in Brooklyn, a contraption that operated well into the twenty-first century. But a historic place is not the same as a protected place, and, without formal designations from New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, there is little stopping private owners from tearing down even the most storied structures.

The site dates back to 1892, when John Kolle, a German immigrant and real-estate entrepreneur, conceived the building as a kind of Brooklyn’s-own Versailles—what he called a “temple of music and amusement.” Kolle rebuilt Prospect Hall at the turn of the century, after it was ravaged in a fire. (Three thousand Knights of Columbus had partied there the night before.) He raised eight children on the property with his wife, Bertha. In 1911, the two retired to Daytona Beach, Florida, and passed the financial reins to their son William, who would soon grow into a profligate playboy. Deep in debt and on the run from creditors—he was also rumored to be a Nazi sympathizer—William Kolle eventually ran the business into the ground. The hall was bought, in 1940, by the White Eagle Society, a Polish-immigration association, which also struggled to keep the place afloat.

In 1981, Prospect Hall got its third and final owner-operator, Michael Halkias, a Pittsburgh-born, Greece-raised entrepreneur, who set about returning the space to its former grandeur. Halkias and his wife, Alice, patched holes in the roof, stripped paint from wooden walls, lacquered the floors, painted ceiling panels with pastels of pink and green (he called them “Halkias colors”), applied several cubic feet of gold leaf, and lit it all up with enough wattage for a World’s Fair pavilion. Mirrored and marbled hallways led to oak-panelled antechambers and three barrooms with Prohibition-era trapdoors to hide the booze. The Halkiases added “Grand” to the name and marketed their one-of-a-kind party mansion as a gathering space for New York’s upwardly mobile immigrant communities. “We, Alice and Michael, have something for you!” Halkias declared in his heavy Greek accent, in the ads that earned loving parodies on “Saturday Night Live” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

Following Halkias’s doting restoration, New York media and Hollywood came calling. The Grand Prospect Hall hosted photo shoots for Macy’s catalogues and Vogue fashion spreads. It was featured on television shows such as “30 Rock” and “Gossip Girl,” and in films, including “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The Cotton Club,” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Still, the problem for Halkias, as it had been for the German and Polish immigrants before him, was turning a profit. In 2011, he proposed erecting an eleven-story building, including a hotel and parking garage, on the property, adjacent to and above the hall. Before presenting the concept to the local planning committee, Halkias circulated flyers stating that, if neighbors opposed the hotel, he would be forced to open his doors to bigger, boozier, more raucous events, to “cater to a low-end clientele with limited budgets, limited options, but with large numbers,” he wrote. The backlash was swift. “ ‘GRAND’ THREAT? HOTEL PLAN INCLUDES NOT-SO-SUBTLE WARNING,” read the headline in the Brooklyn Paper. (“It’s not a threat,” Halkias replied. “It’s very simple math.”) The neighbors, with backing from Brad Lander, then a city councilman, worried about increased traffic, noise, and garbage; they complained that the hotel would block precious sunlight in their airy, low-rise Brooklyn neighborhood. The hotel plan fizzled, and Halkias turned to more creative revenue streams.

In 2015, Halkias opened an outdoor German beer garden—just as John Kolle had done more than a century earlier—and welcomed the Great Big Brooklyn Challah Bake (which produced a Guinness World Record for the longest braided loaf of bread). From 2017 to 2019, the Grand Prospect Hall hosted the annual City of Gods Halloween party, a Burning Man-adjacent rave that packed the place with more than five thousand ornately bedazzled and leather-strapped hedonists, vamping and grinding and losing their minds in kaleidoscopic light shows inside the ballroom. The Zlatne Uste Golden Festival, a boisterous Balkan brass hoedown, grew year after year, ultimately drawing thousands for long, sweaty, chandelier-rattling nights of traditional Old World circle dances and crowd-surfing.

The last and biggest Golden Festival at the Grand Prospect Hall took place in January, 2020. Less than two months later, the space—along with every other events venue in New York City—shut down indefinitely. Early that April, Halkias felt the first symptoms of COVID-19. On May 6th, at age eighty-two, he died in Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital. A family member told me there were no plans to sell the building before that point. But Halkias’s death and Prospect Hall’s sudden and near-total loss of revenue during the pandemic—as well as annual property taxes totalling more than four hundred thousand dollars—changed everything.

In early June, more than a month before the sale of Prospect Hall was reported in the New York real-estate press, the Halkias family held a multiday auction of the building’s contents. Among the buyers was Mark Snyder, the owner of the Red Hook Winery, situated a couple of miles away, on Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront. Snyder, a sentimental Brooklynite who also works as Billy Joel’s touring guitar technician, put in winning bids on oil paintings, mirrors, chandeliers, dishes and silverware, deep-cushion banquet chairs, and a gargantuan wooden bar for his business. Inside the building, he was stunned not only by the evident history—such as the original fourteen-lane bowling alley in the basement, with original wooden pins and wooden balls—but by the chaos of the scene on the day he came to pick up his winning bids. After the auction, things turned into a “free-for-all,” Snyder said, with scavengers wandering the building and haggling with the Halkias family. Cargo trucks lined the block to pick up the sold goods, while dumpsters were waiting in the back. “It’s unfortunate to see the place go in that fashion,” Snyder said. “The father died and, boom, they just sold the guy’s whole legacy.”

For days, the picked-apart building was a salvage gold mine. Trucks from the antiques-wholesale operation Olde Good Things, which is owned by a Christian group known as the Church of Bible Understanding, were seen parked on site following the auction and have been spotted there as recently as late November. The company has listed Grand Prospect Hall doors for sale on Facebook, and employees confirmed that it has been selling lighting fixtures, stained glass windows, and framed photographs from the hall at its Fifty-second Street Manhattan showroom.

Glenn Palmedo-Smith, a documentary filmmaker in Southern California and the great-great-grandson of John Kolle, told me that he feels “cheated” by both the Halkias family and Prospect Hall’s new owner, the real-estate developer Angelo Rigas. “Prospect Hall is the ancestral home of the Kolle family,” Palmedo-Smith said. Michael Halkias often paid homage to the hall’s history in the press and on the two-hour tours that he would give visitors. But he never pursued preservationist options for safeguarding the building, whether through the city’s unusually strong landmark law (passed in 1965, amid the fallout over the destruction of the original Penn Station) or by seeking a private partner willing to carry on the building’s legacy. In lieu of such an effort by Halkias, there was little the city could have done short of imposing landmark designation against Halkias’s wishes. “Historic preservation as practiced in America basically runs into direct conflict with our concept of private-property laws,” Bankoff, the former Historic Districts Council executive director, said.

Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, told me that Prospect Hall had been on the landmarks commission’s radar since the nineteen-seventies, when he worked for the commission, “but it just never got done.” (Rigas, the developer who bought Prospect Hall and its adjacent lots, declined to be interviewed for this story and relayed answers through representatives at Pitta Bishop & Del Giorno, a New York lobbying firm. A Halkias family member also declined to answer questions about the arrangement, citing a confidentiality agreement signed with Rigas.)

During the pandemic lockdown, Palmedo-Smith pieced together a documentary about his family’s intertwined history with the building. He obtained old family pictures and diaries written by the first generation raised there—one relative reflected on the joys of sipping beer, as a child, from unattended taps. One of the photos featured a poster advertising the “Under Cover Novelty and Masquerade Ball,” of January 17, 1908. (Tickets cost a dollar and fifty cents, and included access to a communal costume wardrobe.) What particularly captured his imagination was Prospect Hall’s role in the early motion-picture industry. Kolle’s children, including William and Herman, grew up participating in plays in the outdoor Venetian Gardens theatre. That theatre became one of the world’s first motion-picture production lots when Herman co-founded, with the silent-film pioneer Fred J. Balshofer, the Crescent Film Company, which produced and distributed the short film reels known as nickelodeons. (Crescent was soon spun off into the New York Motion Picture Company, a precursor to Universal Pictures.) In 2019, Palmedo-Smith had talked to Halkias about the possibility of silent-era artifacts languishing in the hall’s cavernous basement—Halkias said that there were dozens of film cans down there, the size of nickelodeons, with old labels he couldn’t make out. The existence and fate of the film cannisters is one of several mysteries lingering after this summer’s hasty auction.

About five weeks after the chaotic liquidation of Prospect Hall’s contents, news of the building’s sale to Rigas reached New York City’s real-estate press. Five days later, the Department of Buildings issued an interior-demolition permit. Outraged, a group of local activists, led by two local teen-agers who grew up dancing at the Golden Festivals, posted a petition to save the hall. “This is an obscene development,” they wrote, in August, “and if the Department of Buildings chooses to approve this demolition, over a century of Brooklyn history will be gone.”

The teens found an ally in Jim Glaser, a neighbor to the hall and an arts community organizer. Once Glaser, a twenty-year Burning Man veteran, tapped into his neighborhood and activism networks, the petition exploded, garnering more than forty thousand signatures in a couple of weeks. But by this point the interior destruction was already well under way. In late August, a photographer made his way into the building; Gothamist published his ghoulish album of the gutting in progress.

“Not only did I find out too late that the building had sold, but the interior had already been demolished,” Tori Haring-Smith, another Kolle descendant, told me. She had wanted to save the original Kolle family crest, painted on a wood panel over the door to the Oak Room. Nearby was a unique political artifact: a depiction of Teddy Roosevelt with his rump where his front should be. In the context of an immigrant German drinking hall in the early twentieth century, it would have been understood as a cartoon protest against Roosevelt’s anti-German sentiments. These works are now unaccounted for.

At summer’s end, there were glimmers of hope: in an August 30th press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Park Slope resident, suggested that the city might be able to save the building’s façade. Glaser’s activist group hired a lawyer, who filed a temporary injunction against Rigas, pausing the demolition for about two weeks. But, in mid-September, the landmarks commission ruled that neither the façade nor the already destroyed interior merited saving. (The façade had been “substantially altered” years prior.) On November 3rd, the Department of Buildings issued a permit for the hall’s total demolition, which Rigas’s lobbying firm said would be complete by year’s end.

“What happened to Grand Prospect Hall was an avoidable tragedy, but saving it would have required a lot of tools that New York City doesn’t have yet,” Bankoff said. Countless more properties remain vulnerable. Bankoff and Dolkart both cited the longstanding effort, including by the Historic Districts Council, to pass a demolition-review ordinance, which would require the landmarks commission to review pending demolition permits and potentially act to save the buildings. “Once a developer has that permit, these buildings are gone forever,” Bankoff said. Rigas also took advantage of the process that provides demolition permits even before development plans are filed for approval with the city; by the time Rigas’s plans are assessed next year, the building will likely be long gone.

There was a tragic paradox to Prospect Hall’s final years: as Halkias struggled, and ultimately failed, to keep the hall afloat by inviting in larger and more diverse groups, thousands more New Yorkers discovered and appreciated the building not long before it met its end. Bankoff sees the death of the Grand Prospect Hall as “a call to action for all communities.” He said, “Make lists, identify important sites, make it clear to elected officials before they are at risk—that this library, this street, that church helps create the physical form of the neighborhood that I am invested in, emotionally and economically.”


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