Articles

The Repurposed Beauty of Former Movie Palaces

by Allison Meier on July 9, 2013

Loew’s 46th Street Theatre

Loew’s 46th Street Theatre (photograph by Matt Lambros)

There’s repurposed architecture all over New York City, from banks that have become grocery stores to a water tower becoming a speakeasy, but the most monumental transformations are definitely to be found among the city’s old cinema palaces.

Matt Lambros has gone into just about every abandoned theater within the New York City area and beyond to document the decay of these once-magnificent centers of spectacle for his project After the Final Curtain. This has included discovering that a bodega or furniture store actually had a whole vast theater hidden behind its storefront. “I think space is very limited in New York City, so reusing the existing space by putting up a wall or two is a much cheaper option than tearing it down and starting over again,” he explained to Hyperallergic about the necessity of repurposed architecture in New York. But it’s far from the only city to have morphed old theaters: “I have seen this kind of repurposing elsewhere, for example the Michigan Theatre in Detroit was turned into a parking garage and a lot of the original architecture was left intact. However, I think it’s a bit more common in New York City.”

Furniture Store, Once a Theater in Brooklyn (from Google Street View)

Furniture Store, Once a Theater in Brooklyn (from Google Street View)

For example, there’s the Loew’s 46th Street Theatre (shown above and here on Google Street View) that dates back to 1927 in Brooklyn, where once the illusion of an Italian garden at night was summoned with clouds flowing over the ceiling and even a working fountain. However, after transferring hands over the years and at one point becoming a rock venue, it eventually became its current incarnation as a furniture store in the 1970s. The lobby is a showroom, yet behind the store the theater is still intact, used as storage for stacks of chairs and other furniture.

The Charles (Bijou) Theatre

The Charles (Bijou) Theatre (photograph by Matt Lambros)

There’s also the Bijou Theatre (later renamed the Charles Theater) opened in 1926 that became a church, a not at all uncommon fate of old theaters. Unfortunately, following a 2006 fire, it was torn down last year, but Lambros got inside for some photographs before its demolition. The theater at 12th Street and Avenue B was relatively small with about 600 seats, and went from standard early 20th century movie fare to more  art films from the likes of Andy Warhol and Vernon Zimmerman. After all that experimentation, it became a Pentecostal church. And now a condo development has taken its place.

Hollywood Theatre in Manhattan

Hollywood Theatre in Manhattan (photograph by Matt Lambros)

Finally, for a last example of the transformed theaters (but definitely not a summary of all of them), there’s the Hollywood Theatre from 1930 in the East Village on Avenue A. Once an ornate movie palace between Sixth and Seventh streets, its golden Rococo details were hidden away over the years, and a bodega moved in below. You might never guess walking on the street below that just above your head, past the bodega flowers on the street, is something of a time capsule from the Golden Age of cinema.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid (photograph by the author)

El Ateneo Grand Splendid (photograph by the author)

As for my part, I’ve seen a few transformed theaters in my wandering through architecture, including the beautifully preserved El Anteneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires. Sadly, the books below the balconies are nothing different than you’d find in a Barnes & Noble, but you can take a coffee on the stage and look out at the gleaming architecture.

And there’s something entrancing about these old theaters, as Lambros stated: “I think the reason I find theaters so interesting to photograph comes from two things, first, I love the idea that going to see a movie was an event. People dressed up, an orchestra would play, maybe there was a little vaudeville show, or a newsreel. I was born about 60 years too late for that. Second, I find the different styles of architecture used in these theaters fascinating from the atmospheric theaters of John Eberson to the Beaux-Arts theaters of Thomas W. Lamb, they’re just amazing to see in person.”

You can see more photographs of abandoned or closed movie palaces on Matt Lambros’ site After the Final Curtain.

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