the end of the 19th century Brooklyn
was still a new frontier and the fastest growing city in America.
Frederick Olmsted, designer of Central Park, had recently completed his
most beloved project, Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The west border of the
vast green space was where the wealthy, fashionable, and powerful chose
to build their elaborate Victorian mansions. The area was
named Park Slope, for its gentle hill that
tilted down to New York Bay. Known as Brooklyn's "gold coast," Park
Slope was inhabited by German and English industrial-era barons,
moguls, merchants and traders, who created a lavish society.
They spared no expense pursuing luxury--in fashion, architecture, and
entertainment. It was the age of opulence.
It was also a time of sweeping changes in America.
Immigrants streamed into rapidly swelling urban areas in search of
their fortunes. Industrialization created opportunity, and more leisure
time and income, for all walks of life. This was the golden age of
Coney Island's meteoric rise. The amusement park's popularity crested
in an outrageous display of rides, vaudeville, lights, and laughter.
Shedding the shackles of Victorian strictures, society on all levels
exploded in exuberance, gaiety, and celebration. Just as the common
people had their playground in Coney Island, the rich needed one to
Local entrepreneur John Kolle built this "temple
of music and amusement" in 1892. He had the unstinting support of
politicians, businessmen, religious leaders and masons who wanted a
social, cultural, and political mecca for Brooklyn. Money was no object
for Kolle. He wished to create a palatial French Renaissance hall
echoing the lavish embellishments of Versailles--all 140,000 square
feet and four magnificent stories. Grand Prospect Hall was to be the
crown jewel of the country, an elegant reflection of the community's
prosperity. It was to equal the regal beauty of the Brooklyn Museum,
the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the
Grand Army Plaza and further embellish the great, young city.
To this end, Kolle hired a young and spectacularly
talented architect, Ulrich J. Huberty, creator of Prospect Park's
renowned Boathouse, Tennis House, and Litchfield Villa. Huberty set out
to exceed Kolle's European vision of a monument fit for a kaiser. The
ornate marble and granite lobby; the rich oak and mahogany paneling;
the stained glass artistry; the dazzling mammoth crystal chandeliers;
and the massive ballroom and opera house--these were only the obvious
King Midas touches. Grand Prospect Hall also boasted the first "French
birdcage" elevator, the highest roof garden, and the first electrified
commercial building in Brooklyn. (A large crowd gathered to witness the
Prospect Hall was the place for the prominent to
parade, celebrate and party. Men in their top hats and tails, women in
their jewels and Parisian gowns flocked to the hall by carriage and car
to hear presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan orate and opera
great Enrico Caruso perform. On balmy evenings, the elite gathered in
the Venetian gardens to watch high-class vaudeville and motion
pictures--society's tony answer to Coney Island's antics. The
performances were of such high caliber that silent film star Sophie
Tucker graced a 1910 program. Newspaper articles from the era shower
Kolle with praise for his service and attention to guests' needs, as
well as touting the decor and entertainment.
Masquerade and fancy balls were also popular
sport. A poster for the Undercover Society's Grand Novelty and Mask
Ball offers costumes for two and serpentine and confetti favors with
the $1.50 ticket purchase. (Once, an unfortunate guest dressed as a
snowman was set afire by an errant cigar spark just as he accepted his
costume prize. The excitement caused a small stampede, but revelry
resumed after the flames were quelled.)
Grand Prospect Hall continued to attract both the
famous and infamous throughout the 20th century. Al Capone frequented
the hall's speakeasy (peephole included) during Prohibition. He
reportedly received the facial wound that earned his
"Scarface" nickname during a scrap there. Not a complete thug, Capone
was also an ardent operatic fan and had a balcony box in the ballroom.
Later, Lena Horne would get her teenaged start singing at the opera
house. Other visiting luminaries included Mae West, Sonja Henie, Bob
Hope, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
Always a movie set magnet, the hall was home to
The Crescent Motion Picture Company in 1908 until legal pressure from
competitor Thomas Edison forced its closing. In recent years, Gregory
Hines tap-danced up and down the grand marble staircase and along the
birds-eye maple parquet floors in Frances Ford Coppola's Cotton Club.
Jack Nicholson eyed Angelica Huston in her balcony perch and waltzed
with Kathleen Turner in John Huston's Prizzi's Honor. American
Express have filmed commercials at the hall, featuring bridal couturier
Vera Wang. Vogue and top photographer Steven Meisel created a lavish
masquerade ball fashion spread, and Life magazine shot ten pages of
ballroom dancing. Music video productions include Foxy Brown, Eve with
the Ruff Ryders, Cyndi Lauper, and Anthrax.
Today, the refurbished Grand Prospect Hall is even
more elegant and lovely than its auspicious beginnings. Gold leaf,
granite and marble still grace the interiors. Lavish antiques and
classical oil paintings in heavy gilt frames adorn the many ballrooms.
Brass and marble statues and the original stain glass and murals
continue to grace the stunning interiors. Gaily colored ceilings and
vivid garlands of floral moldings reflect the celebratory glamour that
pervades this Brooklyn palace of social expression. Now a national
historic landmark, the hall remains a living heritage for all the
people representing the American ethnic melting pot. Everyone who
enters the extravagant lobby and spectacular spaces feels taller, more
important, grander. Although the gold-coast lifestyle ended years back,
the age of opulence lives on at The Grand Prospect Hall.