Originally known as the Manhattan Opera House, 311 West has had an interesting history. Oscar Hammerstein built the theater in 1906, but after a few short years, the Metropolitan Opera House came to him requesting that he not compete with them, and made him an offer that he could not refuse. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Hammerstein sold the building to the Shubert brothers where they continued to feature a variety of shows and concerts. In 1922, it was sold again, and this time a Grand Ballroom was added. Unbeknownst to the builders, they had created an outstanding acoustic setup where musicians from Harry Belafonte to the Grateful Dead have performed and recorded. Over the past twenty plus years, construction has been on-going as more multimedia studios have been added and a refurbishing done to the Hammerstein Ballroom to accommodate large private events.
With construction starting in 1958 and finishing ten years later, Saint Vartan Cathedral represents the first Armenian Apostolic cathedral built in North America. Named after a saint who was martyred a millennium and a half ago defending Armenian Christianity, Saint Vartan Cathedral had a memorable beginning. During its construction and immediately following its completion, the building was visited by the highest authority within the Church, His Holiness Vasken I, marking the first such visit by a Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians in the United States. For a people so persecuted throughout history, and especially by the recent Armenian genocide, the building and consecration of this holy house was a monumental event in the community. His Holiness Vasken I, looking out at an assembled audience soon after Saint Vartan's completion, spoke of "an admirable picture of spiritual grace - a rare moment of spiritual bliss - to which we are all witnesses. " But far from being a relic, the church continues to thrive with the energy of the community it houses. I encourage any visitors to the church to walk through the intricately decorated doors and take some time to absorb the sheer size and depth of the church. Narrow strips of stained glass depicting biblical scenes and significant events in the history of the Armenian Church rise up to the impressive dome, which depicts Christian symbols in paint and stained glass, such as a human eye within a triangle (representing the omniscient Triune God), the wooden ship (representing the Church), and the white dove (representing the Holy Spirit). Closer to the altar, the “Head of Christ” is chiseled on a slate of stone in high relief. Silver and gold crosses decorate the distinctly Armenian altar. On the sides of the altar are paintings of St. Sahag and St. Mesrob, the two men credited with inventing the Armenian Alphabet, and a painting that seeks to honor the victims of the dreadful Armenian genocide.
Johnny Ivanac hopped on board a vessel from Croatia to the U. S. in 1968, with a background in hospitality and a dream of opening his own restaurant. When the ship stopped in New York, he decided to settle here and, thanks to the advice and generosity of the congregants at the local Croatian church, has never looked back. Johnny’s restaurant career kicked off when he was offered a job at a pizzeria, which he accepted with enthusiasm despite one small snag — he had never before tasted pizza. This did not deter him or the owner of the pizzeria, who assured him, “In a week you’ll be the best guy here. ” Sure enough, he was. When a restaurant owner learned of him from a fellow Croatian, Johnny joined his team and amassed a following of loyal customers who encouraged him to open his own place. Hesitant at first because of lacking funds, Johnny reached out to folks back home who pitched in to help him put a downpayment on a business that was about to close. He soon sent for his sister, Maria, and fellow Croatian, Chef Mili. The close-knit team was able to open their dream restaurant in 1981 and pay it off four years later. “With hard work, honest work, good work — you’re gonna make it. ” Villa Berulia has since become a neighborhood staple, uniquely melding elements of Johnny’s Croatian heritage with popular Italian fare. Customers call in advance to reserve a serving of cannelloni or decadent flourless chocolate cake (both recipes remain a closely-guarded secret). Johnny and Maria continue to spend time in the restaurant, but Johnny’s beloved daughter, Alex, and her husband, Steve, now run the everyday operations while carrying on that same “small family that extends to the customers. ”