As White Eagle Hall in Jersey City starts to make a name for itself as a premier venue for live music — upcoming acts include Drive-By Truckers on Oct. 5 and New Found Glory on Nov. 7 — and theater, it’s important to look into the building’s storied history. Possibly more important is looking into its recent restoration.
“As a real estate developer, I focus on historic buildings so when I saw this building (in 2006), my first goal was to build condos,” says Ben LoPiccolo, CEO of Ben LoPiccolo Development Group.
But LoPiccolo’s wife, Olga Levina, artistic director of the Jersey City Theater Center, had been educating him on the importance of the arts.
“When I went into the building and saw that it was formerly a theater, I was reluctant to turn it into condos and it was too expensive to restore as a theater, so I walked away.”
Fast forward to 2010, when the seller called LoPiccolo to see if he was still interested. “The market had turned and the price had dropped by 50 percent. I ran the numbers again and it made sense to turn White Eagle Hall back into a theater,” he says.
At the same time, Levina had been looking for a venue to present JCTC’s larger-scale productions (the nonprofit arts organization has the neighboring Merseles Studios for smaller productions) and saw the demand for professional theater in Jersey City.
“We joined our visions — me as an artist and he as a developer — to help bring theater and art and culture to Jersey City because it should not be just a bedroom city to NYC,” she says. “But we knew we’d need more than theater, which is why we brought on food and live music; we knew we needed to add more commercial value.”
And that they did.
In addition to restoring the building, LoPiccolo created a business model to keep the space viable.
“We designed the space with no fixed seating, so we can have guests standing (approximately 800 capacity), seated (approximately 400 capacity) or tables and chairs for banquets. We also put in a full sound system, paying heavy attention to sound acoustics to accommodate both concerts and theater,” he says.
The sound technology includes sound isolation springs in the floors and walls; custom-fabricated sound diffusion and absorption panels on the ceilings; the stage’s sound panel has its own discreet ground, silencing unwanted hums; and even the preserved and fully restored dimpled tin ceilings have sound diffusion qualities. Through this system of sound absorption, isolation and diffusion, nearly all echo, unwanted noise and incidental reverberations are eliminated.
Along with the sound system, LoPiccolo and company also put in work to make the venue a real draw to bands.
They started by bringing in talent buyer Heath Miller of Excess dB Entertainment, who has accumulated two decades of experience in the New Jersey/New York City market. And while so far the bands slated to play White Eagle Hall tend to be mid-size rock bands, Miller hopes to book more diverse offerings, including Latin, hip-hop and metal shows.
“It’s such a great venue and we’re looking to book Jersey bands who have strong ties to the area. Ben put a lot of time and thought into the details that bands may need, including a green room, shower facilities and a washer and dryer — one of the hardest things to do on tour is wash clothes,” he says. “So when bands show up, they comment on how nice and clean it is. We’re making every effort to maintain that level of cleanliness.”
But even with all the modern amenities, LoPiccolo knew that the physical renovation of White Eagle Hall needed to pay homage to the previous tenants of the building.
“When I first walked in, it was a gymnasium, a basketball court. I did my research and found that Bob Hurley (the first high school basketball coach inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and a Jersey City legend) of St. Anthony High School coached his teams here. We took up the floor and preserved it and just figured it out as we went,” he says.
The court floor ended up being repurposed as the bars, front of house desk, sound council and balcony floor.
Another important preservation LoPiccolo made was of the stained glass fixtures commemorating Polish composer Frédéric Chopin and Polish opera star Marcella Sembrich, which had been in place since the building opened in 1910.
The building was originally built by Polish immigrants under the leadership of Father Peter Boleslaus Kwiatowski, a priest and later pastor of St. Anthony of Padua church, and hosted community events and programs for much of the 20th Century.
“It was important for us to look at the sentimental value before we demolished anything to see what we could preserve because it leaves a connection between the old Jersey City and the new Jersey City,” LoPiccolo says.
That connection is something that Levina is working on as well, in an effort to appeal to a new, younger audience of theater-goers. She says it’s important to show how art can speak the truth and stir the conversation on several levels.
“Great art always has messages and we hope that the younger generation and our followers can participate in a wonderful dialogue; we make sure that we are very inclusive,” she says. “It’s not easy to manage with no governmental support and no big grants, but we still believe that we should do it and that it’s worth it.”
“Our vision is to try and please as many people as possible and reach a diverse audience,” he says. “We don’t want to focus on any one thing in particular. We want to look at our population as a whole and get as many people in here as possible.”
White Eagle Hall is also available for private events. For more information and to check out the full calendar of events, visit whiteeaglehalljc.com.
- Hero (Top) Feature Image (& Additional Images): © White Eagle Hall (Photographs by Bang Chau) / Facebook