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.
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. And just as the common people had
their playground in Coney Island, so the rich needed one to call their own. Enter Grand Prospect Hall.
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.
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 initial
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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