Sometimes the sorrow associated with the loss of a magnificent structure is equaled by the dispair over what replaces it. Such is the case at the 23rd Street and 8th Avenue.
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Pike's choice of location was well calculated, but too soon. The city was growing northward and The Academy of Music, the favorite of New York's upper class and memorialized in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, sat far south on 14th Street.
Samuel Pike anticipated the potential of his site. In 1865 the 5th Avenue Opera House had opened at 5th Avenue and 24th Street; and a few years after Pike's Opera House opened, 23rd Street would be dotted with theatres including Booth's Theatre (owned by actor Edwin Booth) at 6th Avenue, Bryant's Opera House, also at 6th Avenue, and Proctor's Theatre. His speculation, however, was a few years too early.
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When Fisk and Gould brought on "Black Friday" in October of that year with their botched attempt to corner the gold market, Fisk barracaded himself in his offices here. It was also in those offices that Fisk met his end when his business partner, Edward S. Stokes, shot him (this all had to do with an ugly turn of events involving Josie Mansfield). Fisk's body was laid in state and his majestic funeral conducted in the grand lobby.
Despite the imposing building, The Grand Opera House was never able to turn a profit. Although it was the only theatre in New York to pass the fire safety inspections of 1876, it was a theatrical "Jonah." That same year new management lowered admission prices and changed the entertainment again, now producing popular stage plays like "Uncle Tom's Cabin." On September 14, 1880 The New York Times reviewed the new play "The New Magdalen" and its star, Miss Ada Cavendish "who has only recently returned from Europe."
"Mercy Merrick shamed, hunted down and betrayed before the man she loves becomes, in her hands, a deeply interesting anomaly; and her cry of rage and passion is a cry that rings long in one's ears. Those who have not yet seen Miss Cavendish in Mr. Collin's drama should improve this opportunity, for 'The New Magalen' will be kept upon the stage only during the present week."
While never a truly successful theatre, The Grand Opera House survived intact until 1938 when the RKO Theatres took it over and commissioned Thomas Lamb Associates to remodel it as a modern movie theatre. Much of the ornamentation on the facade was stripped off, the colonnaded street level was broken into small retail shops and a marquee was added over the 8th Avenue entrance.
RKO ran the theatre for 22 years, finally closing it for demolition on June 15, 1960 when the Ladies' Garment Union began razing several blocks where the Penn South apartments would rise for union members and their families. Exactly two weeks later, on June 29, Samuel Pike's magnificent opera house was gutted by fire.
Within three years a new structure appeared. Today a bland yellow brick three-story office building sits back from its one-story commercial adjunct on 8th Avenue. Glaring neon hocks barbeque and donuts where once Puccinni was played. Pike's theatre, which cost $1 million in 1868, has been replaced with a low budget eyesore.