Hidden History

The Theater Came Crashing Down

In the dodgy Greenwich Village of the early ’70s, the groundbreaking Mercer Arts Center brought Shakespeare and punk together under one roof—until tragedy struck.

The Theater Came Crashing Down

Just after five p.m. on Friday August 9, 1973, there was an ominous rumbling sound at the University Hotel in Greenwich Village.

Then, as The Village Voice reported: “The plaster ceilings started falling. Four minutes later the wooden beams gave in. Floors began crumbling, caving. There were screams, people rushing into the street. Joseph Cooper, hotel manager, dialed 911 and then ran outside. He was in the street when he heard a large, awful crack, he remembers, and then the eight-floor building fell to the ground.”

Police and firemen run for cover as a section of the University Hotel, 673 Broadway, collapses. (© Anthony Casale/New York Daily News)
Police and firemen run for cover as a section of the University Hotel, 673 Broadway, collapses. (© Anthony Casale/New York Daily News)

Four were killed when the University Hotel went down: Herbert Whitehead, Kay Parker, and Arthur and Peggy Sherwin.

“The top floors just began sinking down into the bottom floors,” an NYU student told the New York Post. “Dust was being blown out through the windows and doors.”

The University was the largest hotel in America when it opened in 1870, located at 673 Broadway between West 3rd and Bleecker. During its century of use it slipped from opulence into disrepair; the 14 slips of paper clutched by Joseph Cooper represented mostly welfare recipients who were long-term residents at the hotel. It was a faded icon, and the catastrophic collapse merely put it out of its misery. But around the corner, on the West side of the building, lay a more promising casualty of the destruction—the rubble that once was the Mercer Arts Center, where a band of liberal theater producers had tried to create a Lincoln Center for downtown Manhattan.

The once-grand University, initially named The Broadway Central, was built on the rubble of the Southern Hotel and the Winter Garden Theatre, which had housed a production of Julius Caesar starring all three Booth brothers—Edwin, Junius Brutus and John Wilkes. That building burnt to the ground on March 23, 1867, with The New York Times reporting that Edwin lost his entire private wardrobe.

On August 25, 1870, The Broadway Central opened with great fanfare. The Times called it “a monster hotel,” adding: “The building is heated by…the force of domestics, cooks, stewards, writers, hall-boys, & etc.… something approaching in numbers to the inexhaustible Prussian Army.”

The hotel would see lots of action. James Fisk, a playboy, robber baron of Wall Street and associate of Boss Tweed, was shot dead on the grand stairway in 1872. Their fight was over a prostitute. The 1890s saw the infamous tycoon Diamond Jim Brady partying hard in the hotel’s restaurants. After the turn of the century, a hotel eatery—Trotsky’s Kosher Restaurant—became a favorite for a Russian immigrant named Lev Bronshtein. Months later he would change his name to Leon Trotsky.

By 1970, that grandeur had been ground down into nothing. Home to drunks, junkies and transients, The University Hotel was a flophouse, one of hundreds existing up and down the city’s increasingly decaying main thoroughfare. To the city’s planners, it was an eyesore. But to Art D’Lugoff, a downtown club promoter, it looked like a promising opportunity to open a groundbreaking arts center.

The New York arts scene had already begun to move downtown, but the Mercer Arts Center was destined to become something unique. It was the first facility there to feature multiple performance spaces open to many different kinds of acts.

“If you can build one, you can build six,” D’Lugoff said in the summer of 1970. “Six theatres in one spot will feed off each other, create traffic, interest, excitement.”

He had reason to be optimistic, boasting previous success with the popular Greenwich Village nightclub, The Village Gate. It was a haven for groundbreaking comedy and jazz, once hosting a $3 double bill of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. By 1970, he had begun booking early punk bands at the space and began fantasizing about expansion.

When the first two floors of the University Hotel, which was but a few blocks away, became available, D’Lugoff saw promise in the vandalized and neglected interior. He recruited his brother, Dr. Burt D’Lugoff, and Seymour Kaback, an air conditioning engineer, as partners. The first step? Raise money to pay for renovations.

“I’ve been the silent partner with Art D’Lugoff in the Village Gate,” Kaback told The New York Times in 1971. “I actually got to know him when I put in air conditioning in the place and waited two years for my money, and so we got to be very good friends.”

A modified version of a page from The Mercer Arts Center's brochure, in which the list of directors has been dramatically covered by the word "deceased." (Courtesy Mercer Arts Center)
A modified version of a page from The Mercer Arts Center’s brochure, in which the list of directors has been dramatically covered by the word “deceased.” (Courtesy Mercer Arts Center)

Their financial relationship remained sticky. Kaback told the Times that “renovations will run about $300,000. I’m doing it at cost because I’m doing it myself.” But D’Lugoff was a free spender, and the price tag came in at closer to $500,000—a difference that may have led to Kaback emerging in March of 1971 as the Center’s sole owner. D’Lugoff and his brother would go on to run the Village Gate until 1993.

The Mercer Arts Center’s grand opening was held on December 20, 1971, but construction would continue at 240 Mercer Street, with more multi-use theater spaces being added. The complex was designed to showcase various performing arts that included off-Broadway theatrical productions, film, dance, music, experimental work in video and cable television, poetry reading, and classes in acting, voice and movement. The main floor consisted of the Mercer Hansberry Theater and the Mercer Brecht. The second floor had four cabaret theaters and a rehearsal space.

“Remember the broken-down toilets?” a young woman told her male companion at the opening, as reported by the Daily News. “It’s really gorgeous now.” She pulled open the men’s room door to show off the gleaming white tile – and an unsuspecting male occupant.

As the Center came to life, revamped bathrooms and all, the hotel remained derelict. Within the first six months of 1972, there were 22 robberies, one homicide, three rapes, seven petty larcenies, five grand larcenies, six felonious assaults, 18 drug-related crimes and 49 burglaries in the hotel.

“I’m taking a run-down, rat-ridden pestilence,” said Kaback, “and making it into an oasis.”

“What’s so funny about a pathetic troupe of strictly-from-hunger entertainers trying to make it big in a sleazy South American nightclub? Plenty, according to the crowds who throng nightly to Off-Broadway’s Mercer Arts Center, where El Grande de Coca-Cola opened to happy reviews last February,” wrote the Times on June 17, 1973. The complex also staged successful productions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Proposition, and Macbeth starring Rip Torn, whose “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” was probably underscored by pounding bass and screaming guitars bleeding in from the other theaters.

Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls on stage at the Mercer Arts Center. (Photo courtesy Marty Thau)
Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls on stage at the Mercer Arts Center. (Photo courtesy Marty Thau)

To help pay for the costs of the renovations and the theatrical productions, the Mercer opened its unused spaces to punk rock bands. The Center’s Blue Room theater became home to a rapidly growing fringe music scene, hosting the first concerts of bands like the New York Dolls, the Modern Lovers and Suicide—groups laying the foundation for early punk rock. In 1972, Lou Reed had left the Velvet Underground, the Factory was fading, and punk needed a home. “CBGB was a Hells Angels hangout,” says Alan Vega of the electronic protopunk duo Suicide. “Max’s was closed.” In the renovated theaters of Mercer Street, the punks came home to roost.

In the summer of 1972, Marty Thau saw a sign outside the Center advertising an incredible bargain: “NEW YORK DOLLS: 2 SETS $3.” Six months earlier, Thau had quit his job at Paramount Records and was looking for a new project. He paid six bucks and he and his wife were treated to “five guys dressed as women in horrible makeup and jewelry.” “I was blown away by the performance,” he recalls. Thau became the band’s manager, arranging a residency at the Center. They played there every Tuesday night for a year.

“Elton John, Susan Sontag, Andy Warhol and Fran Lebowitz started showing up at the shows,” Thau remembers.

The theater-supermarket experiment was working. Successful Off-Broadway performances, music performances and art all came together and created a unique location. But the problems on the Broadway side of the building proved to be too heavy. The walls were beginning to sag.

“We replastered the crack, but they kept breaking through,” Kaback told the Times. “I kept telling the management of the hotel they better do something. They kept telling me that they were. Last Thursday, the wall between Gene Frankel’s workshop and the adjoining room cracked in two places. I heard the walls groaning. By 2:30 p.m. on Friday it was Panicsville in there.”

At 3:30 p.m. on August 3, 1973, Kaback convinced Cooper, the manager of the hotel, to telephone an engineer, but the engineer was not home. By five o’clock Kaback told reporters that bricks were beginning to fall and he evacuated the Arts Center. At 5:10 p.m., the Times wrote, the building “felt like it was exploding.” It collapsed only 20 minutes before the scheduled performances that evening.

Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls. (Photo courtesy Marty Thau)
Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls. (Photo courtesy Marty Thau)

As rescue teams searched the rubble for victims, Mark Fingeret, the Director of Emergency Medical Services in the city, ordered 20 pine coffins to be brought from Bellevue Hospital. When asked by a reporter if that was necessary, Fingeret replied, “You don’t think there’s anyone alive in that rubble, do you?”

The building, said fire chief John T. O’Hagan, “fell like a pancake.” Firemen combed the rubble through the predawn hours, but deputy chief John Hart had no hope for survivors.

“We’re looking for bodies,” he said. “We’re not talking about survivors.”

The next day, Mayor John Lindsay ordered his housing and building inspectors to develop immediate plans to inspect the structural soundness of all pre-1901 dwellings in the city. The damage had already been done, though, evident in the thousands of bricks spilled out onto Broadway.

Kaback initially hoped that the space could be saved and re-opened within a few days. But both 673 Broadway and 240 Mercer Street were declared unsafe and ordered to be demolished once the search for missing persons was completed. All four plays that were currently in the middle of their runs were relocated to other theaters in the city.

It was later revealed that, in February 1969, a major wall in the basement had been removed. An anonymous informant told the New York Post that “additional space was needed for a commercial tenant and the hotel’s management allegedly took down the wall without an official permit.” This, in combination with the constant rumbling of the underground BMT subways, was believed to have caused the collapse.

The estates of the deceased and injured filed lawsuits against the two hotel owners, Matilda Edwards and Gertrude G. Latham. The two women filed their own $2 million action in late November against the arts center, claiming to be innocent victims. Philip Edwards, husband of Matilda Edwards, had been buying and selling hotels in the city for more than 40 years and bought the property on behalf of his wife and her friend, Gertrude. The two owners charged that the defendants, especially the Mercer Arts Center and Kaback, had “made physical alterations…wantonly, recklessly,” and that “as a result thereof, a substantial portion of the building collapsed.”

The band Suicide at the Mercer Arts Center. (Photo courtesy Marty Thau)
The band Suicide at the Mercer Arts Center. (Photo courtesy Marty Thau)

“Where the Blue Room was, there was just a stage sitting there, but there was no building around it,” wrote Vega, in his memoir Suicide: No Compromise. “There was all this rubble out on Broadway…History was made in that place. The Dolls played there…Suicide played there. There were some great nights in that place. That was the end of the scene. It was before CBGB and Max’s started to go on. With the Mercer Arts Center coming down, again there was a void in New York City…There was literally zero.”

The legal battle over responsibility dragged on. In 1980, Justice Edward J. Greenfield ruled that New York City was 30 percent liable for damages because the Department of Buildings failed to ensure that the hotel’s dangerous condition was remedied. This was overturned in 1983 when the New York Court of Appeals found that the city should not be held liable.

By then, 673 Broadway was already rebuilt. New York University had completed a 625-unit graduate student housing facility in the summer of 1981. The building still remains part of the NYU campus. The Mercer Arts Center never rose again.