Real Vinyl History: The Mercer Arts Center Collapsed 43 Years Ago Today

HBO's Vinyl began in the rubble of one of New York City's great underground performance spaces. The Mercer Arts Center had quite a history.

This article originally appeared on Feb. 2, 2016. HBO’s Vinyl has not been renewed and will not get to the second verse.

Does a roof have to fall on your head to appreciate good music? The Mercer Arts Center (as seen on HBO’s Vinyl) was one of the most important venues for live rock and roll in New York City from 1971 through 1973, when the building it was housed in collapsed on Aug. 3, 1973, with almost no warning.

The Grand Central Hotel was 123 years old. It was also called the University Hotel and the Old Broadway Central Hotel. It was the largest hotel in North America. Located at 673 Broadway, the hotel was built in 1870. It was designed by Henry Engelbert to resemble his Grand Hotel on Broadway and West 31st Street and paid for by carpet maker Elias S. Higgins, the fourth richest New Yorker at the time. It was one of the largest and most magnificent hotels on the Western Continent rivalling even Paris’ Grand Hotel. 

The Grand Central Hotel stood on the site of the old Lafarge Hotel. That building was destroyed in a fire on March 23, 1867. The Lafarge also housed an arts center, the Winter Garden Theatre. The Winter Garden Theatre staged a production of Julius Caesar that starred Edwin, Junius Brutus and John Wilkes Booth, all three Booth brothers.

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James Fisk was shot dead by Edward S. Stokes on the grand stairway of Grand Central Hotel in 1872 in a fight was over a prostitute. Diamond Jim Brady frequented the hotel’s restaurants. Russian immigrant Lev Bronshtein changed his name to Leon Trotsky after dining Totsky’s Kosher Restaurant, the hotel’s eatery.

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The Broadway Central opened with great fanfare on August 25, 1870. By August of 1973, it was a welfare hotel. 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.

The Mercer Arts Center was 35,000 square feet of air conditioned performance space. It was transformed from run-down, rat-ridden pestilence “into an oasis” in 1970. Club promoter Art D’Lugoff, who would go on to run the Village Gate until 1993, bought the first two floors of the University Hotel and renovated it for about $500,000. The Mercer Arts Center’s grand opening was held on December 20, 1971. The main floor housed the Mercer Hansberry Theater and the Mercer Brecht. The second floor had four cabaret theaters and a rehearsal space.

Before the Mercer Arts Center became a rock and roll legend, it was called “the Lincoln Center of Off-Broadway” The Mercer Arts Center was founded by actor/director Gene Frankel in conjunction with Viveca Lindfors, Steina, Woedy Vasulka and Rip Torn. You gotta love Rip Torn. The man was at the forefront of so many things. The center housed five Off-Broadway theaters.

The Mercer Arts Center was named after the street it faced. The front door was at 240 Mercer Street, north of Bleecker Street and east of Washington Square. The Mercer Arts Center presented avant-garde plays and “happenings” with performers like Wayne County and the actress and singer Ruby Lynn Reyner.

The complex of live theaters on the Mercer Street side of the hotel were operated by Sy and Cynthia Kaback. Steina and Woody Vasulka rented the kitchen of the Mercer Arts Center for performances and presentations starting on June 15, 1971 before moving to Wooster and Broome streets in the former LoGiudice Gallery Building and finally locating The Kitchen to 512 West 19th Street.

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Bands loved New York City theaters in the early seventies. At the time, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention played every Wednesday afternoon at the Garrick Theater on Bleecker St. The Fugs played seven nights a week at the Players Theater on MacDougal Street. The Velvet Underground played around the block twice a night, five days a week at Max’s Kansas City.

related article – Real Vinyl History: The New York Dolls

The New York Dolls had a regular Tuesday-night gig in the Oscar Wilde Room of the Mercer Arts Center. The New York Dolls, David Johansen, Johnny Thunders, Sylvain Sylvain, Billy Murcia, and Arthur Kane Jr., had a regular Tuesday-night gig in the Oscar Wilde Room of the Mercer Arts Center.

Mercer Arts Center kicked The New York Dolls out in 1972 because they wanted neither rock nor roll in the theaters. The center came crawling back after they saw the diminished bar tabs. The Center’s Blue Room theater also hosted the Modern Lovers and Suicide.

The building was experimenting with a theater-supermarket besides hosting successful Off-Broadway performances. But the walls on the Broadway side of the building were beginning to sag. The theater told the hotel’s management that he’d been plastering it over and over but the wall outside Gene Frankel’s workshop was cracked and the walls were groaning by 2:30 p.m. By five o’clock bricks were beginning to fall and the Arts Center was evacuated.

The collapse occurred just after five p.m. on Friday August 3, 1973, hours before the theaters were due to be filled. Hotel manager Joseph Cooper heard rumblings, dialed 911 and ran outside when he heard a large crack and the eight-floor building spilled onto Broadway. People in the hotel later said they saw debris piling in from the pipes. According to a New York Times report, at 5:10 p.m., the building “felt like it was exploding.” Fire chief John T. O’Hagan told The New York Post the building “fell like a pancake.” Mark Fingeret, the Director of Emergency Medical Services, ordered 20 pine coffins from Bellevue Hospital, because he couldn’t believe anyone could have survived it. Herbert Whitehead, Kay Parker, and Arthur and Peggy Sherwin were killed.

The Real History and Songs of HBO’s Vinyl

The next day, Mayor John Lindsay ordered that all pre-1901-structures in the city had to be evaluated.

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The victims sued the hotel owners, Matilda Edwards and Gertrude G. Latham, who sued the arts center for $2 million for making reckless alterations. It was later revealed that, in February 1969, a major wall in the basement had been removed without an official permit. This, combined with the BMT subways, is believed to be the cause of the collapse. In 1980, Justice Edward J. Greenfield ruled that New York City was 30 percent liable for damages because the buildings department didn’t catch it, but it was overturned on appeal in 1983.

Both 673 Broadway and 240 Mercer Street were declared unsafe and ordered to be demolished after search for missing persons was finished. After the remains were demolished, New York University built a 22-story 625-unit graduate law student dorm.

HBO’s Vinyl ended after one season.