The Arion Hall is one of the most beautiful buildings in North Brooklyn, s a living testament to the aesthetic vision of German-American master architect Theobald M. Engelhardt (1851-1935) Engelhardt was one of Brooklyn’s most prolific architects, designing hundreds of structures that include a range of buildings from factories and churches to stores and homes. Born in Brooklyn to German parents, his father was Philip Engelhardt, a refugee from Baden who emigrated here along with his wife, father, and sisters after the failed political revolutions of 1848-49.[ Theobald received his early education at the Williamsburgh Turn Verein school. He then studied at the Cooper Institute where he received a certificate in architecture in 1869. After graduation, he apprenticed in his father’s construction firm, where he was prepared blueprints and supervised construction projects . Philip Engelhardt is credited with the design of the original buildings of the Williamsburgh Turn Verein, as well as numerous breweries and malthouses, including the area’s first brewery, the S. Liebmann & Son’s Brewing Company.
After his father’s retirement in 1877, Theobald established his own architectural office at 14-16 Fayette Street, and, in 1885, the practice moved to a building that he designed at 905-907 Broadway. During his career, The younger Engelhardt designed numerous graceful buildings in various architectural styles, mainly in North Brooklyn. Examples of his work include St. John’s Lutheran Church (1891) and several residential buildings within the Greenpoint Historic District; factory buildings at 60-64 Kent Street (c. 1895), now part of the Eberhard Faber Historic District; the former Maison au Candy Company (1885) in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District; and the Pirika Chocolate factory building (1895) and the former Trinity German Lutheran Church (1905) in the neighborhood of Cobble Hill. Within the Bushwick Avenue study area, Engelhardt designed numerous residences, as well as the Eastern District Turn Verein (1902), Arion Hall (1886 and 1902), and St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran church and school (1892). In 1893, when the Jamaica Bay Yacht Club purchased the Peter Wyckoff mansion, Engelhardt directed and managed the removal of the building from its original foundation and relocation to Jamaica Bay by boa
The Arion Hall building is one of his greatest achievements, but is much more than a mere landmark. It is a monument to a now largely forgotten piece of German-American culture in Brooklyn- the German immigrants love of their country’s music.
New York in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was a very German place and no place was more German than Bushwick where the Arion Hall stands. In 1880, there were over 168,000 native-born Germans living in New York, constituting 14 percent of the overall population. New York had eleven German newspapers and many German areas that not only included Bushwick and WIlliamsburg, but also the Lower East Side, Brownsville. Ridgewood, Middle Village and of course Yorkville. By 1920, however, much of the German musical culture had all but disappeared e, a casualty of assimilation and anti-Geman sentiment aroused by World War I that the German community in Bushwick suffered. German street names in the area were changed against the vociferous protests of the community where Nativists led menacing anti-German demonstrations. German-American stores had their windows broken and many younger members of the community felt a strong pressure to integrate and leave German culture behind.
The German Männerchöre, or singing societies were once a defining feature of German-American culture. Founded by German immigrants fleeing political and social upheaval after the failed revolution of 1848, these musical societies played an important role in Brooklyn culture, commissioning statutes of German composers that still grace Prospect and Central Park and supporting cultural institutions like the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In 1891, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac listed twenty-seven German singing societies in Brooklyn alone with a membership of thirteen hundred and an active chorus of six hundred They once sponsored huge choral festivals that spurred the growth of American choral singing.
The Arion Singing Society of Brooklyn, a German choral group based in Brooklyn’s Eastern District, was first organized in 1867. After using temporary rehearsal spaces for many decades, the society purchased the property in 1886 on what was then Wall Street for $18,000, and commissioned Engelhard to design and construct its permanent home for $65,000. Engelhardt designed a three-story structure with a brick and terra cotta façade and a double entrance on the first floor whose prominent feature was handsome double windows. Two rows of six double windows also appear on the second and third floors. Originally, the basement contained three bowling alleys, a bathroom, a storage room, and a kitchen. A billiard room, dining room, wine vault, and spacious vestibule were all parts of the ground floor. Two flights of stairs climbed the second floor, where entrants were greeted by the spacious lobby and the noble ballroom. Adjoining the ballroom were a sitting room and refreshment room. The singing hall of the society occupied the topmost story, “with the nicest regard to acoustic advantages,” as well as committee rooms, the ladies’ parlor, a dressing room, and several cloakrooms.
The Arion Singing Society’s founding conductor, Edward Wich, served until his death until 1886. In 1890, Arthur Claassen who had been trained at the Conservatory in Weimar and had conducted at prestigious opera houses in Germany before coming to the United States was named musical director. Classeen brought the singing society to new heights as the group consistently won top accolades in the various singing festivals or Sängerfests, including one that took place in Brooklyn in 1900 at which the Arion club won the Minnesänger Prize donated by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Brooklyn Arions sang at he Expositions in Chicago (1893), St. Louis (1904), and Jamestown (1907). In the summer of 1908 they toured Germany after having entertained President Roosevelt at the White House.
The Arion Singing Society founded a women’s chorus in 1893, a children’s choir school in 1903, and began an orchestra in 1910. Arion Hall was in 1919 when about one hundred members and their sons fought in the First World War, and the building was sold in 1920 with new clubrooms constructed in 1924. One of the last public concerts of the Brooklyn Arions was their performance at a Steuben Day benefit concert in New York on November 27, 1983. The organization’s honorary president, Willie Schoeps, was quoted as lamenting the demise of sizable German-American enclaves in the city from which the club had traditionally recruited its members: “Our old timers came here in search of a better life and, like other immigrant groups, they banded together for their own enjoyment and well-being. . . . But these newcomers usually are more affluent, better educated and seek to get into the American mainstream right away. They seem to prefer a suburban life style, and their ties with the culture and customs of the old country are not nearly so strong.
The building lived through the demise of the area and became a run-dwon catering hall , but in 2003, it was converted into lofts and today these places are some of the most desirable living spaces in Bushwick.
There is even a poem dedicated to the now forgotten singing club in German with an English translation:
Bald fasste der Gedanke Keim Bei Männern wie bei Frauen,
Dem deutschen Lied ein trautes Heim
Im fremden Land zu bauen.
Man überlegte hin und her,
Was das wohl könnte kosten
Und welche Gegend passend wär’,
Im Westen oder Osten.
Dort, wo er einst den Ursprung fand,
War nicht Arions Bleiben;
Der Stadttheil war zu unbekannt,
Zu fern vom grossen Treiben.
In diesem Sinn ging spät und früh
Ein Committee auf Reisen
Und hatte bald für seine
Müh’ Auch etwas aufzuweisen.
Flugs einen Bauplatz, schön und gross,
Fand es auf seinen Wegen;
Der passte für den Zweck famos
Und war central gelegen.
In kurzer Zeit kam es zum Kauf,
Dann fing man an zu bauen;
Die Mauern thürmten sich hinauf,
Gar herrlich anzuschauen.
Und wie geplant, so kam das Haus
In Kurzem zur Vollendung;
Es sah recht schmuck und stattlich aus
Und praktisch zur Verwendung.
Gar festlich ward es eingeweiht
Mit höchst solenner Feier,
Ein Denkmal, das für alle Zeit
Den Sängern hoch und theuer.
Sie schauten stolz im Bau sich um
Und Freudenrufe schallten:
„Das ist jetzt unser Eigenthum,
Wir wollen hoch es halten!”
Und die Passiven im Verein,
Sie schmunzeln nun und lachen: ..
Die Hypothek ist zwar nicht klein,
Doch das wird sich schon machen!”
Soon, the idea took seedIn men and women,
The German song is a sweet home
To build in the foreign country.
We wondered back and forth
What the cost might well
And which area would be more appropriate’,
In the West or East.
Where he once found the source,
Arion was not staying;
The part of the town was unknown,
Too far from the big doings.
In this sense, was late and early
A Committee on Travel
And soon for his pains
Also some exhibit.
Flight a building site, nice and big,
Found it in his ways;
The splendid fit for the purpose
And was located central.
In a short time it came to buy,
Then they began to build;
The walls thürmten up to
Splendidly to look at.
And as planned, it was the house
In a short time to complete;
It looked very pretty and handsome
And practical to use.
Even it was festively inaugurated
With most solemn celebration,
A monument for all time
The singers and highly expensive.
They looked proud in the construction are
And shouts of joy rang:
“This is now our property,
We want to keep it up! ”
And the liabilities of the association,
Now they smile and laugh:..
The mortgage is not small,
But that will make it!”