By Dimitri G. Soultogiannis
Special to the Hellenic news of America
Brooklyn, NY—Michael Halkias is the owner of the infamous Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn. He became the building’s third owner, when he and his wife Alice Halkias purchased it in 1981. The original Prospect Hall was built and owned by the German-born developer John Kolle in 1892, and burned down in 1900. The fire in many ways is what makes the hall what it is today. Kolle chose to rebuild a much grander hall and hired Ulrich Huberty, a noted architect who also designed the Prospect Park Picnic House, to design the French Renaissance-style building that stands on Prospect Avenue between Fifth and Sixth avenues today.
When it was built, Prospect Hall was the tallest building in Brooklyn. It was also the first in Brooklyn to have electricity. A large crowd gathered to watch the first flick of the light switch. In the early part of the century, the hall served as a lively town center that offered not only entertainment, but also a place to meet and get word of current events. A visitor to the hall might attend a play one night and a wedding reception the next. In addition to the hall’s complex of meeting, dining and entertainment rooms, there was a bowling alley in the basement and a shooting range. The dances that took place there on a weekly basis usually sold out. A variety of organizations and clubs held office space in the hall, including The Brooklyn Quartet Club and The Brooklyn Rifle Club. In 1908, it was home to the Crescent Motion Picture Company, which was run by a member of the Kolle family. There was even a Masonic Lodge (The Seven Times Wise Lodge) housed in a room on the top floor in what is now called the Grandview Room, yet another lavishly appointed space with a sweeping view of Manhattan and the bay. If you lived in Brooklyn, and you belonged to a club or an organization, you met there. The hall was also a mandatory stop for candidates running for office who would speak to the crowd from the ballroom’s stage. In 1908, the crowd of 1,200 that turned out to hear presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan speak overflowed on to the street where they managed to temporarily shut down traffic on Fifth Avenue. Political rallies took place there as well. In 1908, a mass meeting of more than 3,500 came to demand a subway on Fourth Avenue and, in 1914, The Women’s Suffrage Party chose the hall to kick off their national campaign. ”Even as late as 1929, The Brooklyn Eagle called it one of the borough’s principle sources of amusement.
Prospect Hall stayed in the Kolle family until it was sold in 1940 to a Polish organization called The White Eagle Society. “By this time the hall was starting to get drab and its great years were nearing their end. The Depression pushed the hall into further decline that was exacerbated in the ’50s when many of the neighborhood’s longtime residents and hall regulars fled Brooklyn for the suburbs. Insult was added to injury when the Prospect Expressway was plunked down literally across the street from the hall. Built under the direction of controversial city planner Robert Moses, the expressway effectively sliced the neighborhood in two, limiting, to this day, both foot traffic and the potential for cohesive development.
During the ’60s and ’70s, in order to cover basic costs, the buildings owners began selling off bits and pieces of the hall. The Daily News reported an offer of id=”mce_marker”,200 for a mural in the main ladies powder room. Halkias speaks of the hall in glowing terms, his arms sweeping the air as he points out his favorite features. The hall has come a long way since the day Halkias and his wife Alice made the decision to purchase it. Since then, the two of them have devoted themselves to restoring (some would say surpassing) the grandeur of the hall’s glory days, renaming it The Grand Prospect Hall in the process. After a brief glimpse at Halkias’ own rich background, it becomes clear why he not only felt an immediate affinity with the hall, but was able to direct it restoration with such ebullient flair. Born in Pittsburgh in 1938, at the age of three, he was, as he puts it “exported to Greece with my father.” With the arrival of German troops, he fled in the middle of the night with his father, who was a member of the Resistance. Halkias remembers, “He stuck me on his back, and we went up the mountains and across the bay to Turkey.” Eventually Halkias ended up living in Syria with a family that included 16 to 18 children. When the war ended, he returned to Greece where he lived with his father until he was 18. In 1956, he returned to the United States and was reunited with his mother and sister for the first time in 16 years. From that point on, Halkias lived by what he describes as the American immigrant philosophy, “You have to improve yourself, to always push for a few steps above.” By the time Halkias was 20, he had learned enough English to pass a high school equivalency test and gain admission to Holy Cross College in Boston. “In the summer, I worked as a painter,” says Halkias, “I painted bridges, hotels, department stores. I became a superstar painter. At the same time, I learned about plumbing and electrical wiring.” Not long after finishing school, Halkias moved to New York where he first worked for a Greek newspaper.
Soon, he switched to a better paying position at a travel agency where he eventually met his wife. The couple married in 1966 and started their own travel business, eventually expanding to three agencies. At the same time, Halkias published a Greek newspaper, ran an employment agency and hosted a weekly Greek radio program. “My environment taught me speed,” says Halkias, “My mother is the same way, a demon business lady.” In the mid-’70s, the Halkiases added real estate to their list of enterprises, and that led them to Prospect Hall. “A friend mentioned the hall to us in 1981 and we came to see it,” Alice recalls. On their first visit, the agent showing them the building would not allow them past the main staircase. Determined, they returned a second time. Halkias recalls the utter joy he felt upon walking up the hall’s staircase and entering the Grand Ballroom. “It was an overwhelming experience. I was jumping up and down yelling, ‘I have to buy this building!'”? And while Alice thought he was joking, Mr. Halkias knew he had “all the skills that I needed to put the building together. I was artistic and knew how I could make the hall beautiful.” While a series of books could be written on the couple’s backbreaking restoration effort, Halkias is clearly not interested in dwelling on the subject. When, for example, he tells his tour group about stripping layers of black paint on the walls and bar in the Oak Room, one is not struck by the difficulty of such an undertaking, but the delight Halkias felt upon discovering the small cartoons under the black paint. Halkias also spent countless hours tracking down original items that had been sold off in the hall’s gloomier days. One day, while standing in a bank line, he began a discussion with the man in front of him who, as it turned out, had bought the Oak Room’s murals. Halkias quickly arranged to buy them back and returned them to their original places. What he couldn’t restore or buy, he simply commissioned. Leading the tour up the marble staircase, Halkias points out the murals on either side. He hired Russian-born artist Vladimir Poutchkov to portray a lively ballroom scene. Poutchkov scattered among the dancers the faces of Halkias’ friends and family, as well as his ex-secretary, Luciano Pavarotti and Hillary Clinton. Upon entering the ballroom, which sits at the top of the staircase, the tour group is awed. In addition to the sheer size of the room–it is 45 feet high, 70 feet wide and 125 feet long–the ceiling moldings and plaster fretwork of carved fruits, flowers and dramatic faces decorating the double balconies are painstakingly painted in a spectrum of bright colors. When Halkias momentarily steps out of the room, guests begin to murmur among themselves. And while one woman declares the room “tacky city,” when Halkias returns and the room swells with waltz music, she amends her criticism, “Though obviously he adores this place and it’s very contagious.”
Later, in his office Halkias brushes off critics who view the gold-leafing and bright color schemes that permeate the hall as over the top or inauthentic. From a shelf full of books on art and architecture, he pulls out one on the history of the motion picture industry and turns to a chapter on movie palaces. He points out a passage in the book that explains that the halls built during the same period as The Grand Prospect Hall were designed to be “atmospheric theaters” where patrons came not only for entertainment, but for the sheer enjoyment of their grand environment. “Many people thought I was a stupid immigrant when they saw the colors, but they later came to see that there was another side. The Grand Ballroom,” he says “is an atmospheric theater designed to make people want to come inside and enjoy themselves.” As a testament to the Halkias efforts, the hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places last April. But the hall’s historical significance was recognized earlier when, in 1983, Borough President Howard golden proclaimed March 10 as the annual Grand Prospect Hall Day in Brooklyn. In presenting the proclamation, Golden stated, “One of my dreams of a convention center in Brooklyn has come to life at The Grand Prospect Hall, Brooklyn’s Victorian Palace,” Just last year, Golden again presented Halkias with a Brooklyn History Award for his work in preserving the borough’s past. And while the hall may not pull the same crowds it did as the turn of the century, there continues to be a steady stream of weddings, anniversaries, corporate events and office parties, sometimes all celebrating simultaneously in the building’s many rooms. A new addition this year is an outdoor garden, complete with a magnificent waterfall and pool leading to a secluded terrace. As in its past, The Grand Prospect Hall, which has a total capacity of 8,000, continues to reflect the diversity of the borough in which it is located. Halkias proudly ticks off the endless list of nationalities that have used the hall. Movie-making has also returned to the hall. Prizzi’s Honor, The Cotton Club and Foxy Brown’s latest video were filmed in the ballroom and Oak Room.