Friday, May 27, 2011

The 1927 Loew's Canal Street Theatre -- 31 Canal Street

photo by LuciaM
During the first quarter of the 20th Century, the poor immigrant population on the Lower East Side could escape the squalid conditions that surrounded them in two places: the majestic churches and the sumptuous movie palaces.

Marcus Loew was born into this neighborhood in 1870. The son of Jewish immigrants he worked his way up from a newsboy to owning his own newspaper and selling furs. When he met fellow furrier Adolph Zukor, the direction of his life would take a turn.

The pair established the Automatic Vaudeville Company around the turn of the century and opened penny arcades with hand-cranked “motion picture” vignettes. As projection moving pictures developed, Loew began purchasing established theatres and renovating them into motion picture houses. Before long he was erecting his own buildings; one of which, the Loew’s Avenue B theatre was on the site of the tenement in which he grew up.

As the motion picture industry matured, feature-length films developed and movie theatres became elaborate temples to films. In January 1926 Loew’s company contracted architect Thomas Lamb to design a theatre at 31 Canal Street. Lamb had already established himself as a designer of theatres and for this one he produced an ornate terra-cotta clad façade, completed in 1927.

The intricate and beautiful terra-cotta upper facade of Thomas Lamb's Loews Canal St. -- photo by Alice Lum

Approximately four stories tall, the exterior was embellished with griffins, urns, festoons and garlands – a marriage of Regency elegance with Baroque abundance. The movie-goer would pass through the relatively narrow 22-foot wide Canal Street entrance and lobby into a 2,314-seat auditorium – the second largest motion picture theatre in the city. The interior space was decorated with lush terra cotta ornamentation and grand chandeliers.

While the Canal Street Theatre was a fixture in the neighborhood, it never showed the premier films that were relegated to the Times Square theatres. Here “B” comedies, westerns and serials played to masses of local residents before the advent of television. It was here, though, on April 17, 1940 that Eddie Cantor’s Four Little Mothers was premiered.

photo NYPL Collection

The last movie was screened in the late 1950s and Loew’s Canal Street Theatre locked the doors for good. After it was sold in 1960, the lobby was used as a retail store and the seats were removed from the sumptuous auditorium so it could be used as a warehouse.

The once-grand Loew’s Canal Street theatre, now a retail outlet for electronics, sat unnoticed until 2010 when owner Thomas Sung supported a feasibility study to convert the theatre into a multipurpose performance arts center.

That year the Committee to Revitalize and Enrich the Arts and Tomorrow’s Economy (CREATE) was granted $150,000 from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to conduct the feasibility study, The same year both the façade and interior were granted landmark designation by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Today while residents wait to see what will become of the once-proud theatre, dust continues to settle on the chandeliers hanging over crates of electronics. The ornate terra cotta detailing that once dazzled immigrant movie-goers remains in an astounding state of preservation.


  1. When I saw the first photo, I immediately thought of the Boston Opera House (originally B.F. Keith silent picture movie house), and was not surprised to learn it was also designed by Lamb. I hope the re-use project for the Loews on Canal Street happens so future generations can appreciate the building inside and out.

  2. Kindly link my photo to the webpage where you found it or remove it from your post.


  3. You mention Eddie Cantor in the article. He grew up only blocks away, and lived for many years on Henry Street.

  4. It looks like a synagogue