photo by Jim Henderson
Both Benjamin S. Moss and Solomon Brill were major players in the New York City vaudeville theater industry in the early years of the 20th century. Moss had begun his career with William Fox and Marcus Loew before striking out on his own, and Brill was among the first to establish theaters specifically for motion pictures. The two entered a short-lived partnership around 1910 and on February 27, 1912 broke ground for a combination vaudeville-motion picture theater on the northwest corner of Broadway and 146th Street.
Moss and Brill commissioned one of the foremost theater architects of the time, Thomas W. Lamb, to design what they intended to call the Lafayette Theatre. Before the doors opened they would rename it the Hamilton. Construction was completed by the year's end and the opening was scheduled for January 23, 1913.
Lamb had created an imposing three story structure clad in gleaming white terra cotta atop a polished granite water table. A grand bronze and glass marquee stretched over the Broadway sidewalk and a smaller version covered the 146th Street exit. Majestic windows within two-story arches dominated the design, the spandrels of which were upheld by cast iron caryatids painted to mimic patinaed bronze. The terra cotta cornice was topped with theatrical masks.
It appears that Benjamin Moss was the driving force behind the 1,857-seat Hamilton Theatre. Two years after its opening The Evening World said, "Mr. Moss, with business sagacity and common sense, placed his houses where theatre-going is not regarded as a luxury, but rather a part of the regular life of the community--people who look upon the theatre with clean amusements as one of the necessities of life because of the rest and recreation it gives them...It was when Mr. Moss realized the growth as a neighborhood of the Washington Heights section that he built his first theatre, the Hamilton, at One Hundred and Forty-sixth Street and Broadway, which proved successful from the beginning."
The Hamilton Theatre, like all the great silent picture houses, was fitted with an organ, this one manufactured by the M. P. Moller Pipe Organ Company. But motion pictures were not the only thing audiences came for--it was vaudeville that took center stage at the Hamilton in the beginning. And for that purpose the Hamilton Theatre had an in-house orchestra.
Two days after the theater's opening The Evening World reported on the next week's acts, "May Elinore, the Clemenzo Brothers, Klein Brothers and Schall, Benson and Bell and others."
Spacious theaters were often leased for benefit performances and such was the case in December that year when a fund-raising drive was initiated to erect a new building for the Washington Heights Hospital. On December 11 a buffet supper at Healy's restaurant a block to the south was held, during which Anna K. Silverstein announced "that she had secured the Hamilton Theatre...for Saturday matinee and that all receipts would go to the fund," according to The Sun.
Moss and Brill went separate ways in 1915. Brill was no longer interested in vaudeville entertainment and wanted to focus solely on films. Benjamin Moss continued his successful blend at the Hamilton Theatre. On February 9, 1917 The Evening World reported that "Pride," the second in the series of McClure Pictures "Seven Deadly Sins," would begin the following Monday, and that on Wednesday night, "Shirley Mason will appear in person."
In 1920 Benjamin Moss partnered with E. F. Albee of the Keith & Proctor chain of vaudeville theaters to form the Greater New York Vaudeville Theaters Corp. The Hamilton was renamed B. F. Keith's Hamilton Theater, although the mix of live vaudeville and "photo-plays" continued here until Moss's retirement in 1928. Thereafter the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Radio Pictures (RKO) leased the venue and eliminated live acts. A sound system was installed, making the RKO Hamilton Theater one of the first real "talking picture" theaters in New York City. The organ was removed in 1940.
An electric blade sign announces "Vaudeville - Photo Plays." photo by Byron Company from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1947 RKO redecorated the interior. The Foot-Rite shoe store was operating from the commercial space at 3560 Broadway in April that year. By the summer of 1951 Wafex, Inc., makers of diet pills, and the Cushman Bakery operated from the location. Thomas Lamb's ornate lobby was modernized in 1954, when the end of the line for the motion picture theater was on the near horizon. The curtain closed for the last time in 1958.
RKO first leased the venue for sporting events like boxing, and later as a discotheque. The building was purchased by a church in 1965 which used the auditorium continuing to lease the storefronts. In 1985, for instance, the Broadway Fried Chicken was in 3560 Broadway. The church left around 1989, selling the property to real estate mogul Alex DiLorenzo.
According to the Daily News on March 29, 1990, "DiLorenzo is the heir to one of the city's biggest family real estate fortunes. Real estate records show that he owns scores of buildings." The spotlight was focused on him that year because of the fatal fire that broke out in the illegal Happy Land social club in one of his buildings, killing 87 people. Investigators probed into his holdings and found other illegal nightclubs, including one in the former Hamilton Theater building. DiLorenzo was served with a vacate order from the Buildings Department in March 1990.
DiLorenzo sold the building to investors who walled off the auditorium. In 1995 the grand marquees were taken down. At some point the ornate cornice was removed and a brick parapet installed. The auditorium has sat empty since then, its paint peeling and dust settling on the plush chairs.
In July 1998 the Hamilton Palacio opened in the front section of the building. The New York Times reported, "Signs written in English and Spanish direct shoppers to discounted toiletries, clothing, luggage and furniture. Bedframes with mattresses begin at $250, briefcases $10 and T-shirts 3 for $5." The 2008 book Broke-Ass Stuart's Guide to Living Cheaply in New York City was more direct, saying, "this ornately designed building now houses a three-story compound of cheap stuff. Oh, how the mighty have fallen, wouldn't you agree Mr. Hamilton Theatre?...It's like Kmart, but shittier."
The property was purchased in November 2012 by the 146th Upper Broadway Holdings LLC, putting the fate of the relatively intact auditorium in question. (The exterior was given individual landmark status in 2000.) In 2014 The New York Times columnist Christopher Gray mused, "It might become a big box store or a...well, it is hard to imagine what might pay the taxes, let alone the rent."
In 2020 developers Omni New York and Brisa Builders announced competing plans for the property. Omni proposed to demolish the theater while leaving the façade intact (a practice known as facadism), and erecting two 14-story buildings on the site which would include around 200 affordable housing apartments. Brisa's proposal called for an 18-story tower and a 10-building on the adjoining vacant lot. The two structures would include 250 affordable housing apartments.
Both developers had decided that rehabilitating Thomas W. Lamb's auditorium--still largely intact--was not cost efficient. The fate of the historic structure has apparently not been decided.
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