The Union Square East view of the former Tammany Hall headquarters, which now serves as the campus for the New York Film Academy and houses the Union Square Theater.
Although Tammany Hall continues to be associated with Boss Tweed and the corruption that often accompanied the machine politics of the nineteenth century, there is a more innocuous item that can be connected to Tammany Hall today: the New York Film Academy.
The former headquarters of the Tammany Society, located on the intersection of 17th Street and Union Square East, replaced the razed E 14th Street site that hosted the political machine in the era of Boss Tweed. The Democratic Party organization met at the Union Square site from 1929 until 1943, when Local 91 of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union purchased the building. In 1991, the Union Square Theater opened in the auditorium of the building for off-Broadway shows and the New York Film Academy followed in 1994, re-purposing the remainder of the building for its Union Square campus.
Although it is now used for entertainment and education, the historical and political significance of Tammany Hall led the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee to grant landmark status to the former Tammany headquarters in October 2013.
You could be forgiven for walking by the campus, which has multiple signs and banners promoting the New York Film Academy, and thinking that this is just a building for one of the many schools advertised on the subway system. The Union Square East facade of the building, which has four banners promoting the academy, does not provide any obvious hints of its Tammany past.
The only noteworthy icon found here is a red Phrygian cap, a symbol of liberty in France, the United States, and other countries, on the triangular section of the facade. Instead, you have to venture to the 17th Street facade to discover this line of text that reveals the origins of the building:
“1786 THE SOCIETY OF TAMMANY OR COLUMBIAN ORDER 1928”
The E 17th Street facade of the former Tammany Hall headquarters, where its political past shares the space with signs for its present day theatrical tenants.
This engraving, juxtaposed with the smaller signs for the Union Square Theater and its current show, dates the founding of the New York City Tammany organization to 1786 and the start of construction for this headquarters to 1928.
After your eyes move above those signs and the windows, they meet the portraits of two men facing each other and flanking the motto of Tammany Hall: “Freedom Our Rock.” The man to the left of the motto is Chief Tamanend, the seventeenth century Native American from whom the organization took its name. The man on the right is Christopher Columbus, in recognition of the Columbian Order name that Tammany Hall was also known by.
So the next time you find yourself rushing past the New York Film Academy to get to the Union Square Greenmarket or to reach the chocolate nirvana of Max Brenner a few blocks south of the site, slow down and take a closer look at the campus. You are not only seeing the future of the entertainment industry, but also looking at a surviving remnant of an organization that once dominated New York City.