Monday, November 30, 2015

The Lost Temple Anshe Chesed -- Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street

photo by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

In the 1820s the Jewish population in New York City was still relatively small; yet it was substantial enough to have three separation congregations: Congregation Shearith Israel, the oldest; Congregation B’nai Jeshurun; and Congregation Anshe Chesed.  Composed of German, Polish and Dutch Jews, Anshe Chesed was the youngest group, established in 1828.

Congregation Anshe Chesed (People of Kindness) was made up mostly of immigrants with little money or status.  They worshiped in rented rooms until 1842 when the old Quaker Meeting House at No. 38 Henry Street was purchased and converted to a synagogue.  Within a decade the congregation grew to be the largest in America.

Anshe Chesed distinguished itself from other Manhattan congregations as well by embracing the Reform Movement.  But this change would not become fully rooted until the group built a new, impressive synagogue on Norfolk Street in 1848.   Here more reforms were put into place—the introduction of a choir of both sexes, a pipe organ, and the allowing of families to sit together during worship, for instance.

In 1872 the congregation laid plans for another move—this time surprisingly far uptown.  Land was purchased on the corner of southeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street.  The New York Times explained “The congregation formerly worshiped at the church in Norfolk-street, near Houston, but finding the building insufficient for the increasing strength of the membership, they decided to erect a new temple on the above-mentioned site.”

Prolific architects D. & J. Jardine received the commission.  The brothers, David and James, would be active throughout the rest of the century, designing commercial structures, rowhouses and mansions.

The cornerstone was laid on July 3, 1872 with ceremonies that included “the singing of a chorale by a male and female choir, accompanied by a brass band.”  In the box within the cornerstone were placed a history of the congregation, several newspapers, a list of officials of the Federal Government, State, County, and City, a list of the other Jewish congregations in New York City, and a number of ancient and modern coins, including a Danish token with Hebrew writing, among other items.

Consecrated on September 12, 1873, the $200,000 structure reflected the wealth and position of its congregation.   A mixture of Romanesque and Victorian Gothic, it was 83 feet wide and stretched 120 feet along 63rd Street.  Brick, stone and terra cotta joined forces to create a colorful, eclectic façade.  A massive corner tower rose 135 feet above the sidewalk, vying for attention with the gigantic stained glass rose window.  A Moorish-inspired portico, supported by two spindly stone columns greeted the congregation.

Capable of accommodating 1,400 worshipers, the interior was awe-inspiring.  Brilliantly-colored stenciling, inlaid woodwork, brass lighting fixtures and ornate carving bordered on overwhelming.

photo by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The side door of the temple was opened at 3:00 for the consecration.  The Times reported “The seats were soon completely filled from floor to gallery, many of the worshipers being in full evening dress, and all the males sitting with their hats on, as is the custom of the orthodox Hebrews.”

Two months later, during the week of December 21, 1873, meetings were held between Anshe Chesed and Temple Adath Jeshurun “for the purpose of effecting a union of these two congregations,” said The Times.   The two congregations “declared themselves in harmony with every principle enunciated and proclaimed by reformed Judaism [and] prepared to adopt the most radical measures to bring their worship to accord with modern ideas.”

The merger resulted in the congregation Beth-El.  On March 7, 1874 it rededicated the Lexington Avenue structure.  The New York Times reported “The splendid synagogue, or, as the modern Jews call it, temple, at the corner of Sixty-third street and Lexington avenue, which had been erected by the Congregation Anshi Chesed, formerly worshiping in Norfolk street, and dedicated by them to the worship of the Almighty during the last Summer, has passed into the hands of a new congregation, Beth El.”

Inlaid woodwork and brilliant stenciling added to the lavish interiors.  photo by Samuel H. Gottscho from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In his first sermon in this temple, Rabbi Dr. Einhorn—who insisted on conducting services in English or German rather than Hebrew—referred to the reform movement as one more step in the freeing of the Jews.  He discussed “every allusion to the bondage of the Hebrews during the Middle Ages, as the reform Jew of America believes that he is now freer from every physical bond.”

It would not be long before a near-schism erupted between the two groups.  Prior to 1840 Anshe Chesed purchased a plot 25 by 100 feet on Sixth Avenue between 45th and 46th Street which it used as a burying ground.  When the City outlawed burials south of 83rd Street in 1851, the congregation established another graveyard on 89th Street near Madison Avenue.   That, too, was closed by the City for the same reasons—health fears and property needs.

Having learned its lesson, the congregation purchased a tract of land at Union Fields, Long Island to be used as a cemetery.  It was now being used by the newly-combined congregations. 

When some members realized that the real estate of the old burial grounds in Manhattan was now worth between $70,000 and $80,000, they proposed to move the bodies to Long Island and sell the land.  A permit for the removal of the bodies was obtained from the Board of Health and a notice went out to the congregants.

The reaction was swift and angry from some.

“The old members of the Anshi Chesed are bitterly opposed to this measure, on the ground that it is contrary to their faith to disturb the bones of the dead.  They also claim that the deeds for the lots stand in their name, and that the congregation have no right to them.”

The proposal was “denounced in the most indignant terms” as “desecration of the graves of their relatives and friends,” said the newspaper.  The irate members promised to “use every lawful means to prevent what they consider a wrong being done.”

Eventually the controversy was put to rest when the defiant congregants lost their battle and the coffins were moved.

On September 6, 1879 the temple welcomed its new rabbi, the Rev. Dr. K. Kohler.  The Times reported “The Orientally-decorated interior of the Temple Beth-El, with its slender Moorish columns, and windows of crimson and purple and gold, has not held a larger congregation since it was dedicated, in 1873, than that which assembled to hear the inaugural sermon of the Rev. Dr. Kohler yesterday morning.”

Kohler made it perfectly clear that he intended to continue the reforms of his retiring predecessor, Dr. Einhorn.  Saying that the 19th century marked “one of the turning-points in the material, moral and intellectual history of human kind,” he asked “ought Judaism alone remain passive, hidden, as it were, in its little snail-house?”

He said that “good, honest orthodoxy” had its face turned backward, and “has consequently been overtaken by the swelling tide of modern ideas, which have undermined not only the outer wall of the ghetto, but also the buttresses and the pillars of mediaeval Judaism.”

Kohler announced that services would be performed in English and German, on alternating weeks.  The unrelenting opinions he espoused that day would set the tone for decades of sermons to come.  And his demand for nearly autocratic authority would cause problems a few years later,

Two things occurred in 1886 that deeply offended the rabbi.  The first was the Board of Trustees independently deciding to look for an assistant rabbi who spoke fluent English.  Rabbi Kohler was incensed when he learned of their action without involving him. 

The trustees wanted an English-speaking rabbi to perform services on Sundays, rather than the Sabbath, because many of the young members held jobs that required them to work Saturdays.

Then, as Kohler prepared for a convention of reform ministers in Cincinnati on June 16, the Trustees requested a report on what he intended to do there.  Rabbi Kohler did not feel he was required to submit his plans nor to answer to the Board.

Around June 1 he sent a letter to the Board of Trustees “in which he announced his intention of resigning unless the Trustees accede to certain demands,” reported a newspaper.

Kohler expected his threat to be met with acquiescence.  He was no doubt surprised when one of the leading members of the congregation, Gerson N. Herrman, issued an announcement that intimated the resignation might be accepted.

“Rabbi Kohler is an able minister and a very intelligent man, but as heretofore I am opposed to his doctrines because they are too radical and not positive enough, and I think he was too hasty in proclaiming his resignation…We most assuredly need another minister as an assistant, and I approve of having an English preacher.  A special meeting of the Trustees was called, which will convene to-morrow.  Should the Rabbi’s resignation be accepted, it will not take effect until next year.”

On June 6 the meeting was held, its members being unanimous about looking for an English-speaking assistant and in denouncing the rabbi’s rash reaction.  Nevertheless, a committee of nine was appointed to meet with Kohler.

Rabbi Kohler emerged victorious from that meeting.  The New York Times reported on June 10 “The differences existing between the Trustees of the Congregation Beth-El…and their rabbi, the Rev. K. Kohler, were yesterday amicably adjusted.”

Kohler announced “It is to be understood that the lectures at the temple will continue, as heretofore, under my supervision, and, in the event of any appointment of an assistant minister, such step will come under my jurisdiction.  As to the Cincinnati convention, the Board of Trustees has decided not in any way to interfere with me.”

Kohler delivered a touching and ecumenical tribute from his pulpit following the death of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the renowned pastor of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church.  On March 12, 1887 he declared “When Abraham died, the great men of the time, according to the Talmud, went about saying ‘The world has lost its leader, the ship its Captain.’ So in the death of Henry Ward Beecher the American Nation has lost one of its most gifted sons, one of its most determined and powerful champions for liberty and humanity.”

Kohler’s insistence on looking forward, rather than back, was evidenced in the titles of his sermons.  The same year that he honored Henry Beecher, he preached on “Prejudice,” “Prohibition and Self Control,” “Evolution and Morality,” and “Jew and Gentile: What is Going On?” among similar issues.

When the Supreme Court of Wisconsin ruled in 1890 against the reading of the Bible in public schools, Rev. Dr. K. Kohler responded in his sermon.  On March 23 he declared “It is both right and due of the Jewish citizen to protest against such an encroachment as is the opening of the school with either the Bible or the Lord’s Prayer, or of any of the public meetings or legislative sitting under the emblems and forms of Christians.  That is sectarian practice.  Any religious exercise which does not include all beliefs and convictions must be relegated to the Church, and has no connection with the functions of the State, which are purely secular.”

In 1891 congregation Beth-El moved again, selling its magnificent building to congregation Rodelph Sholom.  That congregation had been founded on September 29, 1842 as an orthodox synagogue; but in 1874 had embraced the reform movement.  A newspaper noted “it was decided to abolish some of the old-time, and now meaningless, ceremonies and to introduce organ music.”

Dedication ceremonies were held on the evening of September 4, 1891 after the temple had been “refitted and renovated,” according to The New York Times.

The following year the congregation celebrated its Golden Jubilee.  On December 17, 1892 Rabbi Dr. Wise delivered his sermon in German, on “Retrospective Glances.”  Tracing the congregation’s history back 1,000 years, he said “Like Jacob, the congregation had reason to thank God for the prosperity that had attended them.  They saw their members on the judicial bench, at the bar, and among the great merchants.  The children had all done well.”

The Congregation Rodeph Sholom involved itself in political and social issues, as well as religious matters.  When the first meeting of the Israelite Alliance of America was held in the Lexington Avenue building on May 25, 1902, the problem of Russia’s discrimination against American Jews was addressed.

The Russian Government had an official policy of barring Jewish men and women from entering the country, despite proper paperwork.  Joseph J. Corn, who presided at the meeting insisted “it was a humiliation to the whole Nation that American passports were dishonored on the borders of Russia because the bearers happened to be Jews.”

In honoring military dead, Americans at the time tended to overlook the contributions of Jewish soldiers and sailors.  Partially in response, on May 17, 1908 the Hebrew Union Veteran Association and the Hebrew Veterans of the War with Spain held joint memorial services at Temple Rodeph Sholom.  The Times noted “Spaces were reserved in the centre of the temple for the members of the two associations, and the rest of the auditorium was filled.”

The temple was equally filled on April 20, 1912, following the sinking of the RMS Titanic.  Rev. Dr. Rudolph Grossman addressed those who asked why God allowed such a tragedy.

“Is God at fault that there were not sufficient lifeboats?  It is human stupidity, sinfulness, and cupidity,” he said.

He spoke also of Isidore Straus, philanthropist, civic leader, and co-owner of Macy’s department store, and his wife, Ida.  “While we mourn for the humblest, the stokers and the sailors who died like men in the performance of their duty, and for the humblest in the steerage, we also mourn for those great men in philanthropy and in other lines which this country could ill afford to lose.

“There is one which we as Jews especially mourn—Isidore Straus, a leader in every good and noble cause, whether patriotic, religious, or educational.  We must call attention also to the wonderfully beautiful, almost sublime, deed of his noble wife, who refused to leave him.”

By 1926 the Lexington Avenue corner had greatly changed.  Apartment buildings and retail stores had replaced the homes along the avenue.  On January 31 that year The New York Times announced that the Temple Rodeph Sholom, “a landmark of the district,” had been purchased “as a site for an apartment hotel” for about $800,000.

The newspaper explained that the congregation, having become “beneficiaries” of the increased value of the real estate, had decided to move out “of a district which is being rapidly changed for structures for other uses.”

The congregation purchased land on 83rd Street, near Central Park West, and laid plans for a new $2 million temple there.  The final service was held on Monday evening, October 4, 1926.

photo from the collection of the Library of Congress
In its place the monumental Barbizon Hotel for Women rose, completed in 1927.  The masterful structure, designed by Palmer H. Ogden, survives today.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The NY Savings Bank Bldg -- No. 338 West 23rd Street

The brick-faced Italianate houses that lined the south side of West 23rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues at the time of the Civil War were not mansions.  Yet the 25-foot wide homes were far from middle-class.  The speculative row was designed with the financially-secure professional class in mind.

The house at No. 338 was home to the John S. Boyd family.  Like its neighbors, it was three stories tall above a high basement.  A broad brownstone stoop rose to the parlor floor where, most likely, floor-to-ceiling windows opened onto a cast iron balcony, like its neighbor at No. 336.  Boyd’s house went one step further than its neighbors in the treatment of the upper floor openings.  Rather than the brownstone lintels and sills, No. 338 featured carved limestone enframements.

Boyd was a director in several insurance firms, including the Clinton Fire Insurance Company and the First National Eclectic Life Assurance Society of the United States.  But most importantly he was President of the Albany Brewing Company, which was founded by his grandfather in Albany decades earlier.

Boyd's West Street depot is pictured on the lower right corner -- copyright expired
Boyd’s extensive brewery was in Albany; but not extremely far away from the 23rd Street house, on West Street and West Houston Street, was the firm’s New York office and “depot.”  From here shipments of beer were loaded onto train cars or boats on the North River (later renamed the Hudson River).

The scope of Boyd’s business was evidenced in 1878 when he filed an application to lay railroad tracks between Morton and Leroy Streets to the river.

The Boyds had moved on by the last decade of the 19th century.  The new owners decided by 1893 to rent rooms.  On May 29 that year an advertisement appeared in The Evening World:  “English family can accommodate one or two boarders: nice home; good board.”

The house would see the comings and goings of various tenants over the next few decades.  Civil engineer George Mitchell Estabrooke lived here at least from 1904 through 1908.  And by 1913 a “Miss Flynn” was here.   A caring aunt, her 7-year old nephew Donald Daly suffered from tuberculosis in the knee.

That same year Dr. Frederick Franz Friedmann arrived in town and set up an office at No. 339 Fifth Avenue.  The Berlin physician widely touted his cure for tuberculosis.  The Sun reported on March 1 that “He said with every evidence of sincerity that consumptives barely able to drag themselves to the office would come again inside of two weeks, walking erect and with signs that the cure has taken effect.”

The day after Freidmann’s office opened, at least 1,000 afflicted persons lined up along Fifth Avenue seeking treatment.   The publicity had attracted the notice of Miss Flynn.

Little Donald was admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital where Dr. Friedmann started treatments.  In the meantime, the doctor accepted $125,000 “part payment” from Moritz Eisner for the American rights to the remedy.  The U.S. Government’s doctors were more skeptical.

The National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis commenced a study; and in May 1913 Washington DC Doctor Anderson published an official report that dismissed Friedmann’s “cure” as ineffective.  

On May 10, 1913, the day after Dr. Friedmann was found in Canada, having mysteriously disappeared, The Sun reported that Miss Flynn had removed her nephew from the hospital.  She said she “believed that the child had made no progress and that it was useless for him to remain there further.”

Also in the house at the time was Susan Campbell.  On St. Patrick’s Day 1914 she married Harry C. Swift who managed the B. F. Keith’s Harlem Opera House.  The boarding house that Susan Campbell and Miss Flynn enjoyed would soon see significant change.

No. 338 was owned by James D. Powell.  He lived on Livingston Place (later renamed Nathan D. Perlman Place) with his wife and son.   His death on August 17, 1916 would change the course of the 23rd Street house.   On February 18, 1919 it was sold at public auction “to close the estate.”  It was purchased by the Lawyers Title & Trust Co., which quickly resold it to the New York Savings Bank that same year.

Originally incorporated as the Rose Hill Savings Bank in 1854, the institution was well-known in the Chelsea area; its main bank building being an imposing Greek temple-like structure on the northwest corner of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue.

In 1921 the bank began the process of renovating the old high-stoop house to a modern bank.  The basement and first floor were transformed into a single, soaring space accessed through bronze doors within a two-story arched opening.  At the right side a doorway provided access to the apartments upstairs.  It was echoed in the window on the opposite side and both mimicked the treatment of the upper floor openings.  While the residential character of the third and fourth floors—including the bracketed cornice—remained intact; the new stone front presented the clean, modern visage of a stable financial institution.

The upper floors were leased to residential tenants, including attorney Earl A. Smith of the law firm McElligott & Smith.  In 1922 he took the bench as a temporary magistrate, filling the place of Judge Matthew T. Breen who was ill.

When the bank was taken over by the Century Bank in 1928, it signaled a series of rapid-fire changes.  Later that year Century Bank merged with the Dewey State Bank, while retaining its old name.  By 1930 it was a branch of the Interstate Trust Company while, again, still maintaining the Century Bank name.

Other than the loss of the central entrance, little has changed to the building's 1928 appearance.  photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
At around 9:00 on the night of April 18, 1930 a 12-year old boy, Harry Restel, was playing in front of the bank.   When he happened to brush by the door, it flew open.  The New York Times reported the following day, “Harry looked inside.  No one was there.  He saw a big safe.  The door of that was open too.  It was filled with silver.”

Reacting in a way that no doubt made his mother proud, Harry ran to Patrolman Michael Kent who was on duty nearby.  Kent notified bank officials who rushed to the scene.

Although the bulk of the bank’s assets were locked in the big vault, the safe contained a tempting $7,367.17 to Depression era thieves.  Nothing was missing.  The bankers said “The only way they could explain the bank door being open was that some employe working late in the bank had gone home and forgotten to lock it.”

One would surmise that someone had significant explaining to do the following morning.

In 1941 the former bank space was taken over by the Molloy Funeral Home; then by the Horne-Dannecker Funeral Home in 1957.  Eventually Horne-Dannecker moved north to the Bronx and the eclectic life of No. 338 continued as the PWG Gallery moved in by 1998.  It was followed by the John Stevenson Gallery which remained here until about 2006; replaced by the Cell Theater Company.  Still in the space today, The Cell is a not-for-profit collective, self-described as “creating works to mine the mind, pierce the heart, and awaken the soul.”

The house that was once home to a successful beer brewer is little changed since its 1921 transformation to a bank; at a time when this section of Chelsea was rapidly changing.

photographs by the author

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Henry Miller's Theatre -- No. 124 West 43rd Street

photograph by the author

By the first decade of the 20th century, actor Henry Miller was not only a leading man, but a successful theatrical manager.  Miller could not have overlooked the trend of stage stars like Maxine Elliot, John Wallack and Edward Harrigan erecting and operating their own theaters.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Backed by the wealthy socialite and philanthropist Elizabeth Milbank Anderson, Miller laid plans for a Times Square theater around 1913 when the old brownstone home of Sarah M. Moore at No. 124 West 43rd Street, between Broadway and Sixth Avenue, became available.  It was an unexpected move for Anderson—she was more well-known for her activism and financial support of public health, women’s education, and African-American education.

Felix Isman first purchased the Moore house, adding to his 43rd Street holdings that now stretched from No. 124 through 130.  His intention was to erect “a large theatrical enterprise, which later, however, failed to develop,” explained the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide in 1916.

Instead, in December that year Elizabeth Milbank Anderson purchased the plots, then leased the property to Henry Miller “for twenty one years with renewal privileges.”  The Record & Guide reported “a new theatre will be erected in West 43d street by Henry Miller for the presentation of his own plays.”   It added “The amount involved in the sale, lease and the erection of the new building will approximate $1,000,000.”

Miller assembled what was a team, of sorts, of architects.  On January 6, 1918 The Sun reported “The architects are Paul R. Allen, in association with Henry Creighton Ingalls and F. Burrall Hoffman, who, jointly or individually, were responsible for the Century, Winthrop Ames’s Little Theatre and the Globe Theatre.”  Almost equally important in the designing process was Miller, himself.  “Many of Mr. Miller’s ideas as to what a theatre ought to be, gained in his years of experience in his profession, are embodied in the theatre,” said The Sun.

The rapid-fire construction of theaters in the Times Square area had, by now, jaded reporters.  On January 6, 1918, as the building neared completion, the New-York Tribune wrote “New York is no longer surprised at the opening of a new theater, and none will interest the theatergoer more than Henry Miller’s Theatre in West Forty-third Street.”  The newspaper held out hope that this one would stand out.  “The actor manager’s prominence in his profession holds out the promise that his theatre, which has been constructed under his direction and embodies many of his ideas, will be something rather out of the ordinary.”

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The Sun agreed.  That same day it opined “Many theatres have been opened in New York in the last few years and several are at present under construction.  The novelty has almost worn off, still there is something about Henry Miller’s Theatre that makes it different from many others.”

The architects turned to the recently popular neo-Georgian style of architecture.  The stately red brick façade trimmed in white stone recalled Colonial architecture with its elegant many-paned arched openings, shallow pilasters with ornate capitals, and massive classical stone urns set deeply within story-tall niches.

The interior followed suit; “Adam in design,” with a color scheme of “old ivory and antique gold.”  The auditorium was capable of seating 1,000 and the double balcony suggested a modern motion picture palace rather than a legitimate theater.   With a good-hearted jab at audience members who customarily strained to see what others were wearing or with whom they arrived, it was announced that all 200 patrons sitting in the balconies “will be able to see the stage even if they do not get a good view of the rest of the audience.”

A massive crystal chandelier illuminated the lavish auditorium, which featured two balconies -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Henry Miller’s Theatre opened on the night of April 1, 1918 with Louis Evan Shipman’s The Fountain of Youth.  Critics applauded the new venue.  The Sun reported “There are ample taste and comfort, convenience and illusion of the various departments of the Henry Miller Theatre, so there is no deficiency to be noted there.”

Critic Heywood Broun agreed (although he would have chosen a different curtain).  “It is an excellent thing for New York that Henry Miller should have his own theatre, for he is a good actor and a conscientious one.  His theatre, the Henry Miller, is a delight, if you don’t mind the curtain too much.  The smoking room is certainly the finest in town.”

Broun panned the show, however.  “Louis Evan Shipman has endeavored to create an atmosphere of mellow gayety.  Instead, he gains the effect of a middle-aged Methodist minister making his first address to the young men of the Boys’ Club down in the church gymnasium.”

The New York Times agreed regarding the new auditorium; while being a bit kinder about the play itself.  “At the opening of Henry Miller’s Theatre last night good taste was lapped in luxury as seldom before.  Every detail of the new house is studied with intelligent regard to comfort of the body and repose of the eye.”  The critic said of The Fountain of Youth “the little comedy of the evening is slight indeed.”

The luxurious interiors included a "sitting room" (above) -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

Almost immediately following the theater’s opening, a blind man began peddling his pencils on the sidewalk outside.  Henry Miller had compassion for Joseph Hahn and The New York Times, years later, mentioned that “Frequently overzealous patrolmen have attempted to chase the blind man from his post, but on every occasion Mr. Miller had gone to his aid and got back Han’s theatre stand for him.”

Elizabeth Milbank Anderson died in 1921 leaving an estate of about $7 million, most of which was left to charity.  The land under the Henry Miller’s Theatre was sold by the estate in March 1922 for about $570,000.  The change in property ownership was not noticed by theater-goers; for now it simply meant that Henry Miller’s rent checks were payable to a different landlord.

Miller starred in most of the plays produced here, and managed to book some of the most recognized names in the American theater.   The matinee performance of Romeo and Juliet on April 19, 1923 marked Jane Cowl’s 100th performance as Juliet.  The actress was presented with a reproduction of the 1623 edition of Shakespeare’s play in the possession of the Duke of Devonshire.  She donated all the proceeds of the following Monday’s performance to establish a memorial to Sarah Bernhardt.

Helen Hayes appeared the following year in Quarantine.  Norman-Bel Geddes designed the impressive sets.  As expected, her performance was stellar.  The New York Times reported on December 16, 1924 “Helen Hayes at Henry Miller’s Theatre last night appeared to hold most of her audience in her hand and to tie them into rosy and ingenious love knots whenever she liked.”

On Monday evening, April 5, 1926 Henry Miller prepared to open in a new play here, A Stranger in the House, He was still suffering from a cold he had contracted in Baltimore; but according to The New York Times later, “He did not regard it as serious enough to prevent him from appearing the opening night and went to the theatre about 6 o’clock.”

Shortly after arriving, the actor became ill and his doctor, Edward Cussler, was called.  Miller was taken to this apartment at No. 101 West 57th Street and opening night went on without him.  The following morning he was taken to New York Hospital, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia in the right lung.  At around 11:15 on the night of April 9 he died.

Miller’s funeral was originally schedule to take place in the Church of the Transfiguration, known as “The Little Church Around the Corner,” or “The Actor’s Church,” on Monday April 12.   The services were moved to Tuesday; a change that one mourner missed.

Joseph Hahn, the blind pencil vendor, sat for an hour in the church until someone realized the situation and informed him of the postponement of the funeral.  After nearly two decades, Hahn still operated his little stand in front of the theater.

Ironically, when the hundreds of prominent men and women from the theatrical profession filed into the church the following morning, a policeman barred Joseph Hahn.   The poor blind man's threadbare clothing stood out among the well-dressed crowd.  But, as Henry Miller had done so many times, a friend came to Hahn’s rescue and escorted him into the church.  Among the celebrity mourners were George M. Cohan, Channing Pollock, Amelia Bingham, Ina Claire, Otis Skinner, David Belasco, John Drew and A. L. Erlanger.

While many Broadway theaters suffered heavily during the Great Depression, Henry Miller’s Theatre kept on with respected plays and headlining actors.  Among those who played here were Leslie Howard, Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, and Ruth Chatterton.  Nevertheless, on June 20, 1931 management announced that “the best seats” had been reduced from $3.85 to $3.

Barbara Bel Geddes, Donald Cook and Barry Nelson appeared in The Moon is Blue, which ran from 1951 through 1953.  photo by Vandamm from the collection of The Museum of the City of New York

In the early 1960s the theater was still presenting big names.  On May 13, 1964 Josephine Baker opened her 24-run show.  The day after that performance ended, Helen Hayes, now 64 years old, returned to the Henry Miller in The White House, co-starring James Daly.  Later that year Arnold Scaasi opened in P.S. I Love You; and in November it was announced that Auntie Mame would open on February 10, 1965.

Two days after the opening of Auntie Mame, 80-year old Gilbert Miller confirmed reports that the Henry Miller’s Theatre was for sale.    On April 20, 1966 The New York Times reported that it had been sold to H. William Fitelson, a lawyer, for $625,000.

Legitimate theater soon gave way to art movies.  But the deteriorating condition of West 43rd Street took its toll.   By the 1970s the former Henry Miller’s Theatre (it was renamed a few times, including the Park-Miller and the Avon-at-the-Hudson Theater), had become a seedy pornographic movie venue.

Howard Stein closed down the movie theater in 1977, gutted the auditorium in a $2 million conversion, and reopened it in June 1978 as Xenon, a disco that rivaled Studio 54.  When that club closed, it was resurrected as Shout in the late 1980s, and Club Expo in the ‘90s.

Conditions were encapsulated in a single sentence in The New York Times in 1996: “Neighbors complain that rowdy teen-agers frequent Club Expo, a nightclub at 124 West 43d Street, where a 23-year-old patron was stabbed to death with a broken bottle in April.”

It appeared that the beleaguered theater was breathing new life when a stage revival of Cabaret opened in 1998 following the closure of Club Expo.  A remodeling of the interior reflected the war-time Germany sets.  The theater was renamed the Kit Kat Klub, echoing the Cabaret theme.  The last play produced in Henry Miller’s 1918 auditorium was Urinetown, which opened in 2001.

The theater was closed and demolished 2004 for construction of the 55-story Bank of America Tower facing Bryant Park.  The façade was preserved as the face of a new 1,055 seat theater within the new building.  It was named the Stephen Sondheim Theater in 2010 on the composer-lyricist’s 80th birthday.

photograph by the author
While facadism—the practice of preserving only the façade of a historic building while demolishing the rest—is routinely decried by preservation purists; at least the elegant neo-Georgian front survives despite the lamentable cost.