On November 10, 1905 The New York Times reported on a ground-breaking concept in New York theater. Heinrich Conried, a director of the Metropolitan Opera House, envisioned a theater which would “present plays that are the standards of all nations and the current American plays that are clean and sane. Opera comique is to be presented twice a week.”
Conried’s idea, which was to be called the National Theatre, stepped away from traditional productions in that they would all be presented in English; “the works of foreigners all being translated into English.” Even the classical Greek plays were to be translated.
To ensure historic accuracy, a Committee of Fashions would approve all costumes. “Especial effort is to be made to have the costumes exactly represent the time of the play,” reported The Times. And for plays set in modern times, “If the leading actor wears a silk hat the other players in the society part of the cast will wear the same hats. His coat and everything he wears are to be the standards.”
To finance the National Theatre, Conrad enlisted the wealthiest of Manhattan society—including John Jacob Astor, J. P. Morgan, William and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Otto Kahn, August Belmont and Jacob Schiff, among others. In addition, 30 boxes were offered at $100,000 each; but the purchasers would have to pass committee approval. “They are to be selected by a committee, which is to endeavor to select people of undoubted social standing.”
Three months later, in March 1906, a contest was held to select the theater's design. Nine of the city’s most prestigious firms submitted plans: Barney & Chapman, Carrere & Hastings, Delano & Aldrich, J. H. Freedlander, Hopping, Koen & Huntington, George B. Post & Sons, Robertson & Potter, Trowbridge & Livingston, and Warren & Wetmore. The plans were considered by a committee including Stanford White, Donn Barber, Otto H. Kahn, Charles T. Barney and Edgar V. Seeler.
By the time the submissions were received, the name of the building had been changed to the New Theatre. The architects were directed to include an auditorium with a parquet, “two tiers of boxes and two or three galleries above the boxes. The seating capacity is to be about 2000. A portion of the roof is to be enclosed under glass as a palm garden. There will also be a room for use as a dramatic school.”
The commission was won by Beaux Arts masters, Carrere & Hastings, whose masterful New York Public Library was rising on Fifth Avenue. Ground was broken in December 1906 on Central Park West and 62nd Street far north of the established theater district. That same month it was announced that Heinrich Conreid had been named as the theater’s director—a position The Times already deemed a “difficult post.” The newspaper predicted that the running of the immense venue would be fraught with “knotty problems.”
Luckily for the venture, its founders had nearly unlimited wealth. On December 16, as excavation had just begun, construction costs had risen to $2 million.
Nearly a year after the deep foundations were begun, Carrere & Hastings filed plans in August 1907 for “what will be the costliest playhouse ever erected in this city,” according to The Times. In the eight months since ground-breaking, the cost had risen another 30 percent, to $3 million.
|Work on the foundation reveals the massive size of the theater. Central Park West is to the left, looking south. collection of the Library of Congress |
The architects’ plans included a “grand colonnade” on the Park side with five entrances that opened into the large entrance hall with two staircases leading to a second floor foyer. The arrangement was patterned “after the Continental opera houses,” according to the architects.
|American Architect and Building News, July 21, 1906 (copyright expired)|
The special boxes were set aside for the 46 millionaire founders. The massive auditorium would contain an additional 2,500 seats. In addition newspapers reported that “The roof of the theatre over the auditorium will be fitted up as a palm garden, and in other parts of the building will be a restaurant and flower and confectionery booths for the convenience of patrons.”
A dramatic school, one of the prerequisites, included a smaller hall and 12 schoolrooms. The optimistic investors expected “that it will be more than self-sustaining, and have expressed their intention of devoting all of the net profit to the school for dramatic art, an actors’ pension fund, and a permanent endowment fund,” reported The Times on August 17, 1907.
But no sooner had the plans been filed than the wealthy investors brought things to a halt. Thomas Hastings issued an explanation that there had been “confusion” and that the delay was not the fault of his firm.
Revised plans were released on February 20, 1908 by a frustrated Carrere & Hastings. The founders seem to have focused on the luxuries of the patrons rather than the functions of the theater. The new plans included “Ample provisions…for a foyer, grand staircase, retiring and cloak rooms, smoking room, entrances, vestibules, elevators, restaurants, roof garden, buffet, quarters for confectioner and florist, and similar accommodations,” said The New York Times.
The newspaper said the style “will follow the Italian Renaissance” and would be clad in Indiana limestone. The symmetrical facade smacked vaguely of the Public Library, and featured 22 entrances and handsome rounded corners.
|The theater nears completion on November 30, 1908. From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, photographer unknown, http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYWKDHAK4#/SearchResult&VBID=24UAYWKDHAK4&PN=2|
The growing problem was that the founders, highly involved in the design, were businessmen with no knowledge or understanding of the theater. Thomas Hastings seems to have foreseen disaster and quickly attempted to absolve his firm from blame. The day following the submission of the plans, The Times reported “The architects have tried to make it possible for every person occupying a seat to hear and see everything. The acoustics will be as nearly perfect, said Mr. Hastings, as possible.”
The cavernous auditorium, however, in the days before miked actors, made “nearly perfect” acoustics impossible. New York theater-goers anticipated the problem even as the building still rose. Newspapers were flooded with critical letters. It prompted Thomas Hastings to write a defensive letter to the editor of The New York Times on April 18, 1908 which said in part “It is undoubtedly the somewhat large seating capacity of the house, and the fact that it is being built upon an entire avenue block of land, which has led your correspondents to believe that the house is to be too large.” He defended the plans, saying “there is one distinctive feature in the design which is not generally known, and that is we have adopted what is called the ‘fan-shaped’ plan instead of the well-known ‘horseshoe’ plan.” Hastings assured readers that the players would be heard in the farthest seats.
The Times gently contradicted him the following day, expressing worries that “The affairs of the New Theatre are now in the hands of a group of gentlemen who have no relation to it except that of mere ownership.”
Finally, in November 1909, the New Theatre was completed. Sadly, Heinrich Conried who had conceived the project, never saw his vision. He died in April 1909.
|photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=24UAYWKAWEQJ&SMLS=1&RW=853&RH=415#/SearchResult&VBID=24UAYWKAWEQJ&SMLS=1&RW=853&RH=415&PN=3|
|The auditorium was sumptuously decorated. bottom photograph from the collection of the Library of Congress.|
The theater’s staggering interiors caused The New York Times to call it a “Palace of Drama.” William K. Vanderbilt had had the ceiling paintings by French artist Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry removed from his ballroom and installed in the foyer. The marble and gold walls were hung with high-end artwork.
|W. K. Vanderbilt donated the ceiling paintings. The New-York-Architect, November 1909 (copyright expired)|
There were no fewer than 50 staircases within the building, leading to boxes, a tearoom “in a Wedgewood effect,” retiring rooms, library, smoking rooms, and private corridors for the box holders. Between the Founders’ Room and the Library was a private corridor “furnished by the founders themselves and is remarkable for its taste and beauty,” reported The New York Times.
Opening night was sold out a full week before. The extravagant production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra was attended by a who’s-who of Manhattan society. London drama critic A. B. Walkey had come especially for the event. In a cable later, he mentioned the audience of “the magnificent palace” that night. “Paris and for that matter London, outside of Covent Garden in the season, could show no spectacle so brilliant as this New York crowd, such a display of aristocratic beauty in the women, such a blaze of diamonds. All New York, socially speaking, was there, and it was a sight worth seeing.”
But already problems arose. Following the first act, patrons complained of “difficulty of hearing what was said on the stage.” The builder, Otto M Eidlitz, rushed to find the problem. He reported that it was the ventilating system causing a hum and corrected the condition.
Another Englishman in the audience was actor-manager Henry Miller. Looking past the sumptuous décor and the moneyed patrons, he announced “In my opinion the scheme of The New Theatre is all wrong. Our drama does not owe its existence to any effort of the wealthy classes. It was suffering which produced it, not wealth. This gilded incubator in Central Park West won’t hatch any great drama.”
Henry Miller’s prediction, along with those of hundreds of New Yorkers, soon became evident. The expense of maintaining the massive theater and the cost of the elaborate productions it required outweighed the income. Three months after opening Carrere & Hastings was brought back to convert the roof garden restaurant into a theater for light entertainment.
Even the restaurant had not been profitable—owing mostly to its inability to obtain a liquor license because of complaints by the nearby School of the Society for Ethical Culture. So now the architects designed a stage for light opera concerts and other productions.
The firm would soon be remodeling the main auditorium as well. On February 20, 1910 manager Winthrop Ames admitted that “a mistake had been made in the construction of The New Theatre.” He confessed that it was simply too large for dramatic productions.
The New York Times reported “Mr. Ames’s announcement was made in replying to criticisms regarding the architectural interior of the playhouse, particularly in regard to its acoustic properties.” The alterations involved removing boxes and rearranging seating, at a cost of $15,000. But even that was not successful.
By March 1911 the New Theatre had lost $400,000. The founders gave up and announced that the building would be leased “to whomever may wish to use it, just as Carnegie Hall is let.” William K. Vanderbilt announced that the founders would “abandon” the structure and carry on “the movement of giving high-class drama somewhere else in the city.”
The millionaires found a tenant in Liebler & Co. who agreed on a $75,000 per year lease. The company’s managing director, George C. Tyler said “he will make productions of a character and scale suited to the auditorium of that house. No play that requires a small theatre for its best interpretation will be attempted there, but only those productions which call for large scenic effects and plenty of stage room will be given,” reported The New York Times.
Liebler & Co.’s first production in what it renamed the Century Theatre was the extravaganza The Garden of Allah. In addition to the elaborate sets, there was a herd of horses and camels, and Middle-Easterners were imported to add authenticity to the cast. This alone caused some upheaval.
The men, who spoke no English, were headed by Sie Hassan Ben Ali. He had his hands full on their arrival in the city. The Times reported that he “had a fearful time in the Subway the day they reached New York, for he lost his hold on them and they rode riotously in groups that scattered to the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Van Cortlandt Park. It took him twelve hours to reassemble them.”
On December 1, 1911 two of the foreigners walked across the avenue into Central Park. The Times reported that the “Mohammedans” were tempted by a squirrel “and for lack of a stone they threw their sandals They were in full pursuit when a large, rough-speaking heathen in blue clothes and buttons of gold leaped upon them and bade them begone from the garden.”
More trouble came about two weeks later when a herd of horses were waiting on 63rd Street to be led into the theater An automobile spooked them and six jumped the wall into Central Park. Six others ran towards Broadway, then to 68th Street.
Theater employees jumped into action, catching five of the horses in Central Park. The other who had jumped the wall was never found. A crowd of boys and policemen finally subdued the others; although one had to be put down because it broke its foreleg.
Liebler & Co. produced concerts on the roof where patrons could either enjoy the open air in hot weather, or be protected in the glass enclosure during rainy or cold weather.
Despite its lavish productions, Liebler & Co. could not make a go of it. In 1913 the theater was taken over by the Century Opera Company, which changed the name of the building to the Century Opera House. Interestingly, its manager, Milton Aborn, had the same idea that Heinrich Conreid had had. The operas would be performed in English. The first season included the stagings of Samson and Delilah, and Salome. The New York Times openly wondered about performing these in English. “How the language will fit in either case is not now a matter for pertinent conjecture.”
In the meantime, the original founders were bearing the financial weight of a non-profitable white elephant, no matter how attractive. On New Year’s Day 1915 William K. Vanderbilt added $100,000 to the already existing mortgage of $1.75 million. Then in May the Century Opera Company declared bankruptcy.
In September Ned Wayburn’s Productions, Inc. opened in the building, and like its predecessors, tried a new direction. In September 1915 Theatre Magazine reported “The house is to be conducted as a music hall after the manner of London and continental music halls.”
According to Wayburn he had spent $150,000 in renovations aimed at increasing profits. In addition to the musical revues in the main auditorium, there were areas for dancing and popular music. “The Vanderbilt room, which is the Circassian walnut room just off the mezzanine promenade, will become refreshment and dancing room. A negro band will be stationed here, and will play for dancing,” said the magazine.
One of the former tea rooms was converted to one of 10 private dining rooms. The restaurants could accommodate 1,000 patrons in all. The roof garden and theater was made into a dance club, as was the former Tap Room in the basement. Wayburn remodeled other spaces for use by the New York Yacht Club and the Automobile Club.
|Chorus girls prepare for Town Topics in September 1915. photo by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York http://collections.mcny.org/Collection/Theatrical,%20Green%20Room%20of%20the%20New%20Theatre.-2F3XC5S8AUE.html|
The first production, Town Topics, had a cast of several hundred and was marketed as “the biggest musical entertainment ever staged” in New York, outside of the Hippodrome. It opened the last week of September and brought in between $12,000 and $20,000 a week. Again, the problem of producing the massive shows necessary for the venue was unsupportable. The cost of running Town Topics was $20,000, so it lost money from opening night. One month after opening, Wayburn’s grand music hall was shut down.
The lease was taken over by impresarios Charles Dillingham and Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. On November 6, 1916 they opened with The Century Girl, a three act musical revue with music by Victor Herbert and Irving Berlin. The Times was overwhelmed. “This is a lavish and vastly entertaining mixture of spectacle and vaudeville. It is something like a production of the ‘Follies’ magnified past calculation; it is altogether like nothing else to be seen anywhere in America.”
The newspaper was certain the Ziegfeld and Dillingham had found the solution. “The world and his wife attended last evening’s brilliant premiere and will be there all the rest of the season.” It reported that the pair had joined forces to create “what is at present—and probably long will be—the greatest music hall in the world.” It added “The curse is off the Century.”
In what the newspaper called another “wave of the Dillingham-Zeigfeld wand” the rooftop was transformed into the Cocoanut Grove; “a rendezvous for those to whom the witching hour is but the shank of the evening, who, in the dead vast and middle of the night, feel stealing o’er them an unconquerable impulse to eat, drink, dance, and see a bit of vaudeville.”
The Cocoanut Grove featured popular entertainers, chorus girls with little clothing, and vaudeville skits. It remained opened until 4:00 a.m. Its great success was attacked, once again, by the Society for Ethical Culture which realized there were drinks being served. On March 30, 1917 an order from the courts prevented further selling of alcohol because the closest door to the school was within 300 feet.
Flo Ziegfeld was infuriated and promised an appeal. He pointed out that the closest doors were exit doors, not entrances, “proved by the fact that they did not even have outside knobs.” He added that if the courts were not satisfied with this argument, “he would willingly seal the doors with stone and mortar.” With the passage of Prohibition, it made little difference.
In 1920 the theater’s management was taken over by the Shubert Brothers. Despite the elaborate productions staged here over the years, it would be The Miracle in 1924 that outdid anything prior. The drama by Max Reinhardt, with music by Engelbert Humperdinck, required 700 actors in period costumes. But it was the set by Norman-Bel Geddes that amazed.
It required 300 craftsmen five months to put together the $600,000 set which transformed the entire auditorium into a Gothic cathedral, including 11 40-foot stained glass windows, a thirty-foot high altar, 20 50-foot columns.
|The entire theater was transformed into a medieval cathedral. Note how even the side boxes are incorporated into the design of the set. photo from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The production required a pipe organ, cathedral bells, wind and thunder machines, and elaborate machinery to move the 24,000-pound scenery either up and down, or on the massive turntable. Opening night was reminiscent of the original. In the boxes were patrons with names like Vanderbilt, Kahn, Harriman, Guggenheim Stokes, and Warburg. Out-of-towners including William Randolph Hearst and his wife, Mrs. Marshall Field, the Duke and Duchess de Richeliue, the Duchess of Rutland and Sir Edgar Speyer all attended.
In 1928 the value of the Central Park property far outweighed the value of the theater. Rumors appeared in newspapers that the Shuberts were selling. Then, in May 1929, it was announced that Chanin Construction Company had purchased the entire block from Central Park West to Broadway for $12 million.
The firm announced it would begin construction on a 65-story commercial building for the French Government. The project, slated to cost $50 million, would house that government’s consulate and offices, as well as a hotel and office space. But neither the French Government nor the Chanin firm had anticipated the stock market crash later that year.
On October 24, 1930 the Chanins announced that the French project had been dropped. Instead the Central Park block would be replaced with a modern 30-story studio apartment building. Two months later demolition began on what The New York Times unkindly called “Columbus Circle’s whitest elephant.”
Designed by Irwin S. Chanin, the Art Deco-style replacement building was completed in 1931. The Chanins gave a nod to the Carrere & Hastings theater by calling it The Century.