For many immigrants to the United States, the first stop after Ellis Island was Jersey City. And at 337-339 Newark Avenue, you’ll find a splendid reminder of our region’s rich immigrant history: White Eagle Hall. In front of the building is a carving of the crowned white eagle, part of the national coat of arms of Poland. The eagle is joined by the carved heads of four famous Polish icons, with very hard-to-pronounce names.
Jersey City is experiencing a renaissance in arts infrastructure, and The White Eagle Hall project fits right in. On page TK in this issue, I profile the fabulous Mana Contemporary, a unique, all-in-one artistic venture that houses artist studios, exhibition halls, performance space, and a complete range of services for artists and collectors. The historic Loew’s Jersey Theatre in Journal Square hosts the Golden Door International Film Festival and is ripe for new entertainment prospects. The Powerhouse was slated to become an arts venue with restaurants, shops, galleries, and a theater, but before that happens, the Port Authority needs to relocate, and much depends on the vision of the new administration in city hall.
Under the ambitious direction of its new owners, White Eagle Hall is in the process of being restored to its original glory and purpose, with some distinctly modern adjustments. Built circa 1900, it was the passion of a Polish-born priest who immigrated to Jersey City and served at St. Anthony of Padua’s parish.
According to the building’s current owner, Ben LoPiccolo, and his wife, Olga Levina, the priest had a mission to preserve the cultural identity and pride of the city’s Polish immigrants. “Most of them came here to work long hours in factory jobs,” Levina says. “The priest didn’t want them to forget their heritage and where they came from.”
When first built, the theater was meant to house theatrical and musical performances and serve as a cultural center for Jersey City’s Polish community—an ambition curtailed by the onset of the Great Depression. To keep the building afloat, it was rented out for weddings and parties and, in later years, served in such varying capacities as a bingo hall and a practice space for Coach Bob Hurley’s famed Saint Anthony’s Friars basketball team.
After purchasing White Eagle Hall in November 2012, LoPiccolo began restoration and, together with Levina, started to develop plans for the building’s future. They hope to open it in late spring. With Levina serving as artistic director, The Jersey City Theater Center at White Eagle Hall is slated to be an 800-person capacity, flexible-use space for music, dance, theater, and visual arts. Levina is intent on preserving the community-inspired directive of the building’s creator. “One big part of our mission is to preserve history in Jersey City,” she says. “It’s been a golden door for immigrants. For an immigrant coming from another land it’s a process. We want to incorporate that history.”
The ceiling—and the stained glass—will be fully restored, with some necessary modifications.
Inside the building, laid into the magnificent, sky-high ceiling, are stained-glass portraits of two Polish icons—pianist/composer Frederic Chopin (who is also French, Levina offers during our tour) and opera singer and teacher Marcella Sembrich, who performed with the New York Met and taught at Juilliard.
Today’s music lovers from Jersey and beyond will rejoice to hear that Todd Abramson, co-owner of and music booker for Hoboken’s legendary Maxwell’s, will be booking local and national music acts for White Eagle Hall. He and LoPiccolo hired a top-notch sound company to ensure the stained glass can withstand the vibrations and decibels sent upward in its direction. As for who might be emitting said sounds, Abramson says we can expect similar acts that played at Maxwell’s when it was still a music venue, and more. “In some ways, the programming will be like it was at Maxwell’s,” he says, “but on the other hand, the size gives me the option to book larger acts and have more flexibility. For instance, some artists only want to do shows with a seated audience. Now, we can accommodate that.”
There will be two restaurants at White Eagle Hall, both located underneath the performance space. Alice Troletto and Mattias Gustafsson, the married duo behind Madame Claude and Madame Claude Wine, will open Madame Claude Bis. The proposed restaurant will be much larger than the current Madame Claude’s, accommodating more than 80 guests, but it will reference the original bistro’s look and feel. “The design and style will be very much like the first café,” said Gustafsson. “It’s a very typical French bistro style that you see all over Paris.” As for food, they’ll be serving the original Madame Claude’s menu and adding updates that will include a raw bar. They’ll have a full-service bar, with a distinct focus on wine. The older restaurant will become more of a creperie, Gustaffson says, with some old Madame Claude favorites remaining on the menu. His band, Manouche Bag, will serve as the house band at Madame Claude Bis, performing two to three nights a week. “There will be no stage, just like at the original café,” he says. “It’s a restaurant and I want people to retain their dining experience and be able to talk.”
Abramson is getting into the action on the restaurant side of White Eagle Hall as well. He and his partners will be opening Bingo (the name is subject to change), a 200-seat restaurant and bar that will serve contemporary American cuisine “before, during, and after the performances upstage,” Abramson says. There will also be a bar in the theater lobby, where LoPiccolo plans to showcase local artwork. He says, “We want White Eagle Hall to be a complete destination experience.”—JCM