Locals Scramble To Save What’s Left Of Historic Grand Prospect Hall

The beloved and over-the-top Park Slope venue, the Grand Prospect Hall, has been gutted.

Just over a month ago, news broke that the longtime event space and wedding venue—run by Michael and Alice Halkias for the last 40+ years—had been sold. Michael died at the age of 82 in 2020 from complications due to COVID-19, and this summer his wife Alice unloaded the space for $22.5 million to Gowanus Cubes, an LLC operated by Angelo Rigas, as part of a larger $30 million, 12 property deal.

The new owner almost immediately filed for permits to demolish the place, and the Department of Buildings issued an interior demolition permit on July 19th, days after the deal went through.

The Halkias’ were the stars of legendary low-budget local commercials in which they promised potential customers, “We make your dreams come true!” But their dream for the Victorian-era banquet hall—which has been the location of countless weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, graduations, parties, musical events and more—has turned into a nightmare for people around the neighborhood who cherished it, as the Grand Prospect Hall that once existed is already gone.

A photo of the interior of Grand Prospect Hall being demolished

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The interior of Grand Prospect Hall being demolished

Gothamist

“I drove by thinking it’s going to take a while before they get plans, maybe we can throw one last party in there, but I heard jackhammers, saw a container in the yard, they started already,” said Ilan Telmont, one of the co-founders of House Of Yes, which had put on several holiday events at the hall in the last couple years. He told Gothamist he had a great relationship with the Halkias family prior to the hall being sold.

“The couple ran the place as a family business,” he said. “Mr. H controlled it old style, he was there everyday, and he would stay until the end of the party, really took charge of every aspect and cared about the place. It was his baby, you could tell there was a lot of love put into the space.”

While he said he understands why Alice Halkias sold the place, the news was still a total shock to Telmont as he had been discussing plans with her to host another Halloween event there this year. He only learned of the sale when he read about the deal: “Even her own manager, whose been working there 15 years, he didn’t know about it. So nobody really knew what was going on there, she was probably the only one who knew.”

Telmont said the Grand Prospect Hall was unique, calling its demise a “heartbreak” and noting “they don’t build buildings like that [anymore] because it doesn’t make financial sense to build such grand structures. It’s a real loss I think, both for the neighborhood and the entire city. In a city that we’re trying to revive, it’s gonna be just another condo. Okay, there’s a lot of them, but this is a true landmark in my mind. I remember the first time I saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve seen buildings like that in Europe, but never seen a building like that in New York.’ I’m just very sad to see it go.”

The second floor ballroom in 1995.

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Since the news of the demolition became widespread over the past week, locals, community activists, and those with emotional ties to the hall have been frantically trying to organize to stop Rigas from erasing its legacy and history in the neighborhood.

“This is an obscene development, and if the Department of Buildings chooses to approve this demolition, over a century of Brooklyn history will be gone,” a petition published last Saturday, that has been signed by over 6,000 people, reads. “Our goal with this petition is to halt the approval of demolition permits while the Landmarks Preservation Commission review the possibility of protecting the Grand Prospect Hall from demolition or major reconstruction.”

The first people to mobilize were not yet born when the Halkias’ took over the space: Solya Spiegel, 16, and her boyfriend Toby Pannone, 18, started the petition after seeing a Brooklyn Paper article about the start of demolition.

“I’ve been going there for over 11 years, and have actually played several times at the annual The Zlatne Uste Golden Festival with the kids band that usually plays, and it was a dream for me to be able to have the space to learn about my culture,” Spiegel, who lives in nearby Kensington, told Gothamist. “It’s so special to me, because I got the chance to feel close to this huge community. It was great because people from all around the world would show up, it was great to have the experience meeting all these wonderful people.”

Spiegel and Pannone started Twitter and Instagram accounts, then launched the petition, to try to drum up some attention. Despite the demolition starting—the permit on the door of the building states they can do “non structural element removal”—the teens are hoping they can preserve the most historic parts of the hall, including the facade. But there’s not much left to save of the interior.

That petition caught the eye of lots of locals, including Jim Glaser, a community activist and artist who lives two blocks from the venue. Glaser has helped put on the City Of Gods Halloween parties at the hall in recent years, before the pandemic shut the place down, and he started a Google Group to connect people and consolidate efforts to help the hall.

“I got heartsick, then I got on my horse and started doing these things,” Glaser told Gothamist. “Losing a venue like this is a deep wound in the psyche of Brooklyn. This is a redwood for NYC. This is so central to what this neighborhood has been. We need to do anything we can do to stop this.”

A photo of activists Jim Glaser and Solya Spiegel outside Grand Prospect Hall

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Activists Jim Glaser and Solya Spiegel meeting for the first time outside Grand Prospect Hall on Thursday

Scott Lynch/Gothamist

Raul Rothblatt, a Brooklyn-based activist and preservationist, was one of those people who connected via Glaser’s group.

“I’ve performed there with my Hungarian folk band Életfa, and it has so much New York history there, there’s been so many meetings and clubs there, it’s just dripping with historical significance,” Rothblatt said. “The interior really exemplifies a period and style that would be completely irreplaceable if it were lost. This is not progress, to destroy this building. And the details inside are really what makes it especially significant for NYC.”

Like most people Gothamist spoke to, he admitted activists faced an uphill battle stopping a project that is already underway: “It’s hard to revoke it once it’s been approved, but I wish we could do that. We’ll need some help. It’s a tough save, but I think the internal demolition permit has to be revoked.”

The building was first constructed in 1892 at the behest of local entrepreneur John Kolle, who wanted it to be a “temple of music and amusement.” After a fire in 1900, it was redesigned by architect Ulrich J Huberty to look like it did up until recently, with “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.” At the time, it had the first “French birdcage” elevator, the highest roof garden, and the first electrified commercial building in Brooklyn.

When the building was entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, it was described as “probably the largest and best-preserved example of its type… the Victorian assembly hall set within a great ethnic community facility, remaining in the country.” However, it is not registered as a landmark in New York City. So when news of its sale and destiny spread in July, City Councilmember Brad Lander and Assemblyman Robert Carroll wrote a letter to the Landmarks Commission asking for that designation.

Read More: A Photo Tour Of Brooklyn’s Dazzling Grand Prospect Hall

“The 118-year-old building has critical historical, cultural and architectural significance to warrant landmark status,” they wrote. “For the past 30 years, Michael and Alice Halkias restored, preserved, and invested in Grand Prospect Hall. They resurfaced much of the building’s lost history, including the recovery of paintings that hung in the beer hall decades prior. Their dedication ultimately earned the building its landmark status with the National Register of Historic Places.”

In addition, Spiegel and Pannone also wrote a letter to the Landmarks Commission, who responded to them on Wednesday saying, “the agency will review the material and keep you informed of the process.”

The landmarking process, of course, doesn’t happen overnight.

So far, no one has been able to reach Rigas, who is the president and co-founder of ARC Electrical & Mechanical Contractors Corp., which has built “MultiFamily, school, universities, hospitals, airports and water treatment plants.” Emails to Rigas, his attorney, and a lobbyist representing his interests by Gothamist have gone unanswered.

Mayor Bill de Blasio—one of the city’s most famous Park Slope residents—has not responded to our questions about the building’s future.

For Telmont, the House Of Yes co-founder, he believes there could have been “a lot of financial potential for the space [as a] cultural center for Brooklyn,” and would have liked the opportunity to purchase it himself. He also echoed a longtime sentiment around the city’s changing landscape, that “the cultural beauty of the city is what brings people here, what makes them stay. Without it, what have you got? That’s really the loss… at the end of the day it’s more about what the city is gonna lose by having another boring condo.”

ballroom

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A photo of the interior of Grand Prospect Hall gutted

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August 2021.

Gothamist

After learning about how extensively the building has been gutted already, local activist Glaser was left with questions this week about how things moved this quickly: “Our electeds failed us but they were also outmaneuvered by a sophisticated developer who knew how to play them and the calendar,” he said. “How this sailed through DOB so quickly and undetected is my primary question.”

At this point, the most he can hope for is that part of the venue could be salvaged and used for events. Asked what he would have said to Rigas if he had been given a chance to appeal to him directly before the demolition, Glaser said he would have made an appeal for everyone to come out happy, by preserving the ballroom and front facade of the hall.

“If the owner want[ed] to be a hero” they could have saved the grand ballroom, he said. “He’d get a lot of very positive press, potentially raise property value for the enterprise, and be a hero. But right now, he’s an evil villain that is destroying something with so much history.”

[Update] Bill Farrell, the spokesperson for the Rigas and the project, acknowledged that they were aware of the outcry over the demolition of the hall. But he clarified that the historic interior fixtures were already gone when they arrived—it was “nothing but walls.”

“We very much appreciate the community’s attachment to the Grand Prospect Hall,” he said. “After the previous owner was unable to find a buyer for the business, it proved infeasible for it to remain a catering hall and they opted to sell the property outright. The interior fixtures had been removed before current ownership took possession of the site, which is planned to be a low-scale residential building with an affordable component.”

Farrell added that there are plans to preserve a Polish American war memorial located on the grounds of the site.

“The Polish American World War II Memorial is located behind a fence and has not been accessible to the public,” he said. “Ownership is committed to the preservation of the Memorial and we are working with the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in New York to establish its future location.”  

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