Friday, January 13, 2012

A Moorish Fantasy - The New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street

photo by Alice Lum
By 1921 the motion picture industry had all but abandoned the East Coast in favor of Los Angeles. On West 55th Street the studio of Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company sat empty and unused on a block lined with garages and stables. Within a year, in its place would rise a fantastic Moorish structure worthy of any silent movie epic.

Since the turn of the century the Ancient and Accepted Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine had been amassing a building fund for a new headquarters. The fraternal order (known most commonly as the Shriners), was an off-shoot of the Order of Freemasons. The group’s focus was to raise funds for charity and to work “for the betterment of humanity.

Because the Order’s two founders were a doctor and an entertainer, the organizations that most often benefited from the charity were hospitals and the fund-raisers were normally theatrical entertainments. The group desperately needed a theater auditorium of its own.

At the time the Order used an old four-story brownstone house at 107 West 45th Street as its Mecca Temple. The 71st Regiment Armory was being used for entertainments; but it had no actual theater space.

On December 24, 1921 the Order purchased the old movie studio from Yale University for $400,000. The Shriners hoped that an impressive building would encourage further development in the area and, subsequently, increased property value.

The following day The New York Times announced the sale and the proposed “Oriental mosque, costing $1,500,000 and following closely the Arabic details which are emphasized in the Masonic Order of the Mystic Shrine.”

The article said the new building “is to be of the finest execution, as befits the mother of all Temples of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.” The writer promised that “it will represent one of the most expensive as well as one of the most striking works of architecture ever erected in this country for the exclusive use of a fraternal order.”

The Shriners said that “Now, that the site has been acquired, it is planned to begin work at once on the mosque.” The goal was to complete the structure by the end of 1922, the 50th Anniversary of the order, when 12,000 Shriners from the United States, Mexico and Canada were expected in New York.

The Times’ description of the building and the Shriners’ promise to begin work “at once” was somewhat surprising since an architect nor design had yet been chosen.

Only a member of the Shriners would be considered for the commission. Louis N. Donnatin, Recorder of the Temple noted “Several sketches have been submitted by nobles who are skilled architects and are interested in the type of mosque that is to be constructed. But no decision has been reached as to the exact plan. The only definite decision has been that we are to have a building of our own here where the mother of all temples may be properly housed.”

The cornerstone was laid in 1923 -- photo by Alice Lum
Before long the architect would be chosen. In November 1922 The Bridgemen’s Magazine reported that a contract had been signed for a 10-story, brick, steel and stone Mecca Temple with “plain foundation…H.P. Knowles, architect and engineer.”

Harry Percy Knowles was a Master Mason and a Noble of the Mystic Shrine and had at one time been head draftsman for the architectural firm of Napoleon LeBrun & Sons. The architect was give the task to provide an exotic mosque-type building with, as outlined by Donnatin, “an auditorium with a suitable capacity,…smoking rooms, a banquet hall, committee rooms, executive offices, club rooms and a limited number of rooms for visiting Shriners.” The ten-story section mentioned by The Bridgemen’s would be the 56th Street tower where the lodge, club rooms and guest facilities were to be housed. By the time of construction two floors were added to the plans.

Lavish, intricate terra cotta covered much of the face, including the horseshoe arched arcade -- photo by Alice Lum
Knowles designed a colorful and exotic fantasy which, while liberally drawing inspiration from Islamic motifs, was never intended to be faithful recreation. His playful interpretation caused the AIA Guide to New York City decades later to call it “delightfully absurd,” and to suggest the “Muslim rulers who ruled from the Alhambra would shudder at this naïve attempt at their architecture.”

The architect would never see his completed building. He died unexpectedly in January 1923, nine months before the cornerstone was laid. The firm of Clinton & Russell oversaw the completion of his designs.

A 1920s postcard view of the new Mecca Temple.
Knowles, the engineer, managed to create vast interior spaces with no visible vertical obstructions. To do so required some ingenuity including the largest single piece of steel ever used in a New York building. The girder –over 92 feet long and 13 feet wide—weighed 65 tons. It took two barges to float the beam across the Hudson River and two derricks to load it onto a long flatbed truck. As the enormously heavy load made its way to the construction site on the morning of November 6, 1923, more than fifty cast iron manhole covers snapped like tiddly-winks and there was concern that the truck and its load would collapse into the subway tunnels below.

photo by Alice Lum
The Mecca Temple was completed in December 1924. The 55th Street façade exploded in brightly colored terra cotta, produced by the Long Island City firm New York Architectural Terra Cotta Company. Use of Islamic architectural elements like horseshoe arches was both exotic and successful. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission would acclaim “What in other hands might have been an eccentric or bizarre parade of Islamic motifs, Knowles has molded into a façade of authority and elegance.”

The 102-foot wide dome, rising 54 feet, was covered with over 28,000 tiles. Inside, the auditorium that the order had so fervently needed would seat nearly 3,000 and boast four pipe organs. The Shriners predicted that the magnificent mosque-like temple would rival the Singer and Flatiron Buildings as tourist attractions.

The massive auditorium could seat 3000 -- photo by Jake Hall
The building was dedicated on December 29, 1924 and in 1925 the first concert was staged, featuring the band of John Philip Sousa, a Mason.

The Great Depression dealt a hard blow to the Shriners and by the late 1930s the group was in financial trouble. Most Shriner lodges were exempt from taxation because of the organization’s charitable works. But because the Mecca Temple rented the auditorium to outsiders for additional income, it gave up its exempt status.

Prior to the 2010 renovation, paint flaked from the ornate ceiling -- photo by Jake Hall
In 1937 Manufacturers Hanover foreclosed and sold its interest to Irving Verschleiser. Verschleiser valiantly attempted to breathe life back into the hall as the Mecca Temple Casino, Inc.; but the venture failed. In 1942 the City of New York foreclosed on the property to satisfy back taxes of $622,543.

It was the end of the line for the Mecca Temple.

It was almost the end of the line for the structure, as well. The City placed the winning bid on the building in its own auction. The suggestion was offered to demolish the auditorium for a parking garage. But Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had other plans.

The Works Projects Administration had sponsored federally-funded concerts since 1938 to bring affordable entertainment to what LaGuardia called “the little guy.” Admission cost a quarter and the concerts were staged in Carnegie Hall or Radio City Music Hall.

LaGuardia, along with Newbold Morris, Morton Baum and Joseph McGoldrick, envisioned the transformation of Mecca Hall into a city-owned, non-profit center for the arts. The city would not be involved in the finances of the projected corporation (other than repairs and maintenance) and would lease the building for $1.00 a year. By July 1943, the City Center of Music and Drama was formed.

photo by Alice Lum
The city immediately announced that architect Aymar Embury would remodel and renovate the hall. The Times reported “The main purpose of the remodeling, the Mayor said…is to perfect the acoustics of the 3,800-seat auditorium. The opera, ballet, concert and dramatic programs to be offered…will be of the highest professional standards, approved by an advisory council and produced under the direction of an impresario and staff.”

The revamped Center opened on December 11, 1943 with a concert by the New York Philharmonic. The highest priced ticket was $1.65. On December 13 the first stage play was offered, Susan and God starring Gertrude Lawrence and Conrad Nagel. Far down on the list of supporting cast was the name of a fledgling singer, Doris Day.

photo by Alice Lum
In the meantime, Leopold Stokowski had taken the City Center possibilities to heart. Feeling that “Symphonic music and opera were mainly heard by a relatively small and privileged class,” he saw in the Center a means to “make symphonic music and opera available to all of these music lovers at a cost within their reach.”

The conductor not only supervised the acoustical additions to the space, he donated his entire first year salary, in 1944, and put an additional $20,000 of his money into the project. During war time, with most men overseas, putting together an orchestra from scratch was no small feat; so Stokowski recruited female and very young musicians. The original New York City Symphony consisted of one third women.

That same year the New York City Opera debuted here and in 1948 the New York City Ballet was formed.

The first year nearly 750,000 persons attended performances, of which 36,000 were school children.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the City Center drew crowds who saw performances by artists like Helen Hayes, Paul Robeson, Bob Fosse, Tallulah Bankhead, Vincent Price, Charlton Heston and Jose Ferrer. Leonard Bernstein conducted here in 1945. Art shows were regularly held, often featuring artists like Cezanne and Matisse.

When the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was completed in the 1960s, the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera moved out of the City Center.

But in the place of the former companies came new ones. In 1966 the Robert Joffrey Ballet company moved in, changing its name to the City Center Joffrey Ballet. In 1972 the Alvin Ailey Company became a resident company as did the Center Acting Company under the direction of John Houseman.

In 1976 a new threat developed when the City Center management ceased support of the residential companies and the structure itself lost funding. In response the newly-formed 55th Street Dance Theater Foundation guaranteed all expenses of the house. The Joffrey Ballet, Alvin Ailey Ballet and the American Ballet Theater managed to save the building.

In 1983 a $700,000 federal grant paid for interior renovations and in 2010 a $75 million renovation was initiated. Managed by Polshek Partnership Architects, it improved seating, sight lines and restored the mosaic walls, ceilings and lobby.

The fanciful and exotic Mecca Temple has survived as a temple of performing arts; unique both in its architecture and its contribution to art and city history.


  1. I've seen several performance by the Alvin Ailey Company here. It's a beautiful building, but I'd had no idea of its storied past. Thanks for this great post!

  2. As a highh school student in 1944 I was priveledged to see Paul Robeson in Othello. Co stars were Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrar. The ticket was les than $2.00