Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Glorious Loew's 175th Street Theater -- 4140 Broadway

photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com
In 1939 Thomas Lamb was far from his birthplace in Dundee, Scotland, on many levels.  In 1883 he arrived in New York at the age of 12 and went on to study architecture at the Cooper Union.  Eventually, after working as a buildings inspector for the City, he established his architectural office, Thomas W. Lamb Inc.

Lamb would make his name with the advent of motion pictures.  His first commission for a theater came in 1909 from motion picture magnate William Fox.  Within eight years he had designed three more motion picture theaters on Times Square.

By the 1920s movie theaters were rightfully deemed “palaces.”  And among the foremost architects of these lavish structures was Lamb.  Before his death in 1942 he would have designed more than 170 theaters.

When the Great Depression hit, Hollywood responded by cranking out carefree musicals and comedies with elaborate sets and lavish costumes.  Busby Berkeley’s Gold Digger series, for instance, offered depression-weary audiences an escape from the gloomy world outside the theater doors.  Even the lyrics in one of the Gold Digger songs, “We’re in the Money,” pretended the financial crisis was over with lines like:

“Old man Depression, you are through. / You’ve done us wrong.”
 and

“We never see a headline about a breadline today.  / And when we see the landlord, we can look that guy right in the eye.”

In 1929 Thomas Lamb would assist in diverting movie-goers’ minds from their troubles.  That year his Loew’s 175th Street theater was built at No. 4140 Broadway, between West 175th and 176th Streets.  Nothing the architect had designed before could outdo this latest extravaganza.

photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

As if with gleeful abandon, Lamb’s wildly exotic design drew from nearly a dozen architectural styles.  Although The New York Times, on February 21, 1930, said “The house’s style of architecture is Indo-Chinese;” it went far beyond even that broad description.  The terra cotta façade—which smacked of a Cambodian or Thai temple--included elephants and Buddhas; and inside Moorish and Byzantine elements coexisted with stylized Rococo and splashes of Art Deco.

photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com

As he did most often, Lamb used Harold Rambusch, of the Rambusch Decorating Company to lavish the interiors.  Rambusch and Lamb shared an important theory about motion picture theater design—the audience should be drawn into grander and grander spaces.

In writing about the rehabilitation of vintage theaters, Janis Barlow of Janis A. Barlow Associates quoted Lamb who, in 1929, said “To make our audience receptive and interested, we must cut them off from the rest of the city life and take them into a rich and self-contained auditorium, where their minds are freed from their usual occupations and customary thoughts…it does not seem wise to bring the people directly into the full richness and intensity of the decorative scheme, so it is customary to work up to this intensity through various stages.”

On February 22, 1930 the theater opened with tremendous fanfare.  More than 1,000 Boy Scouts marched up Broadway from 170th Street to the theater.  “The parade represented the march of Washington’s army to defend New York against the Hessians,” reported The New York Times the following day.  Once in place, the assembled scouts watched the hoisting of the American flag on the roof of the theater.

Movie goers that day would see the screening of Norma Shearer in Their Own Desire.   The interior decorations, however, very well may have been the real show.  As the patrons entered the lobby they were surrounded by gold ornamentation, and red carpeting and hangings.  Intricate carvings encrusted the walls and ceiling.  The newel post lamps of the grand staircase were upheld by elephants.  At the top of the staircase was a gigantic mural featuring a bas relief Art Deco goddess.

Depression-weary movie goers escaped into an exotic fantasy -- photo https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/return-film-to-the-united-palace 
And, as Lamb and Rambusch intended, if the audience was awed by the lobby, they were blown away by the cavernous, richly decorated 3,400-seat auditorium.  Behind the pierced wall carvings were changing colored lights that created a magical kaleidoscope of changing hues.  Once they settled into their red plush seats, the cares of the Great Depression outside were temporarily forgotten.


Behind the filigree walls, lights constantly changed colors creating a mesmerizing effect -- photo by Tammy Lo

As with all the great movie palaces of the time, audiences were treated to organ music prior to the screening.  The size of a theater’s pipe organ was a source of pride as well as a marketing tool for competing motion picture companies.  The Loew’s 175th Street Theatre boasted a Robert Morton twin-chambered “Wonder Organ.”

On Labor Day, 1943 Local Union 802 filed for a $12 weekly wage increase for movie theater organists.  Nearly a year later, on August 19, 1944, the War Labor Board approved the increase.  “The new scale of $92 per week affects only one musician at present, Henrietta Cameron employed at Loew’s 175th Street Theater,” reported Billboard on August 26.  Henrietta received a windfall along with the increase.  “Miss Cameron has collected over $550 in retroactive pay from Loew’s,” the periodical said.  The organist was now earning a gross weekly salary of about $1,150 in today's dollars.

For another decade, before television kept families at home instead of at the movies, Loew’s 175th Street Theater screened first run motion pictures, Saturday serials, and newsreels.  Fans left the auditorium teary-eyed after watching Judy Garland in A Star is Born, smiled through Five Little Peppers at Home, thrilled at Son of Monte Cristo. 
 
photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com
As movie audiences thinned, Loew’s got creative.  In 1964 it screened live sports events such as the Liston-Clay heavyweight championship bout on in February; and the New York Giants and Redskins game at Yankee Stadium on September 25th.  On September 26th The New York Times reported “Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the National Football League, watched the first quarter of the contest from a seat at the rear of the orchestra of Loew’s 175th Street theater, at Broadway.”

Tickets did not come cheaply.  The $6 cost to see the close-circuit coverage at Loew’s was the same price as the most expensive seat at Yankee Stadium (about $45 today).

Creativity did not save the majestic theater as a movie house.  In 1969, after the last screening of 2001, a Space Odyssey, the theater was closed.  It was quickly purchased by the Reverend Ike, considered to be the first black televangelist.  No store-front church, his United Palace had the funds to maintain the structure in its full glory.  Rather than alter the interiors Rev. Ike commissioned full-scale renovations that brought back the priceless Rambusch interiors.

In the early 2000s the church offered the auditorium as leased space.   Here audiences saw concerts by artists like Bob Dylan, Adele, the Allman Brothers, Neil Young and others.

Then, in June 2012, the United Palace of Cultural Arts—a nonprofit arts and cultural center—was created at the Palace.  The center hosts community arts programs, provides a venue for local artists to create and exhibit their work, and hosts events like the master workshop for elementary school students by the New York Philharmonic.

The church added the somewhat regrettable belfry; but was otherwise unusually sympathetic in the building's care -- photograph by Nicolas Lemery Nantel / salokin.com
Thomas Lamb’s extraordinary motion picture palace miraculously survives—one of America’s relatively few intact gems from the golden age of theater design.

8 comments:

  1. Do you look at the "Scouting NY" site? The fellow has several grand old palaces to see(although not in Manhattan)

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  2. They surely don't build em like that anymore. I don't know what would be more entertaining, watching the movie or spending ones time looking at the interior details.

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  3. That belfy is just the most hideous looking thing they ever could have stuck up there short of a replica of the Statue of Liberty or something.

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    1. I'd prefer a Statue of Liberty. Unless it was wearing pastels.

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  4. The belfry is not perfect, but it and it's builders, the church, saved this magnificent gem and those irreplaceable interiors so why be picky? Criticism is deserved to those who can't see the purpose of re-using a preservation worthy building and tear them down without a second thought, AKA Vornado Development, Lefrak Corporation and the now demolished Chickering Hall exteriors and the Rizzoli Book Store interoirs.

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  5. Actually, Thomas Lamb designed two other movie palaces using the same style as the 175th Street; all for Loew's theatres. The first one opened in 1928 and was the Loew's State in Syracuse (now the Landmark Theatre).The other was Loew's 72nd street, which opened in 1932 and was demolished in 1960. It had been designed with an atmospheric auditorium. Most movie palace fans agree that Thomas Lamb's masterpiece was the Fox Theatre in San Francisco. It is generally believed to be the most palatial movie palace ever built.

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  6. When we were here, the building was closed but I found a security guard and told him a little of what I had learned from your blog and said I would love to see the interiors that Rev. Ike had preserved and restored. He called someone in the office who, much to our delight, showed us around and let us take a bunch of photos of this magical place. Another trip highlight thanks to you!

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    1. Wow! Congratulations on your tenacity! And they say New Yorkers are tough! That's wonderful that you got to go inside (and on a private tour, yet)

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