Thursday, August 26, 2010

Union Square Theater

Following up the posts "Before the Vill 7" and "Lost Renwick Found," reader Mark Kane sent in this 1992 shot of the ruined and revealed Union Square Theater.

He writes, "When they were demolishing a row of dry goods stores on Union Square between Fourth & Broadway, I noticed that one of the buildings had a huge, ancient ventilation system on its roof and a odd fire-escape out back. Sure enough, when the building was peeled away, the last remnants of the Union Square Theatre were revealed, its finishes all brown with smoke, but still intact. There was a lovely painting in the round center medallion but scavengers beat me to it. This was in December of 1992. The hideous building that once held Virgin Records replaced this."

The folks at Cinema Treasures tell us this structure was "built in 1870 as a variety theater called the Union Square Theater. In 1893 Keith and Albee purchased the theater for use as a vaudeville theater. It became a movie house in 1908."

from Joseph Haworth

Cinema Treasures reader Lost Memory offers the following pair of vintage photos of the theater when it became a BF Keith's, reporting that the first moving pictures were shown here in 1896.

The theater's demolition was announced in 1989. Christopher Gray in the New York Times reported then, "With a combination of burlesque, ballet, comedy and pantomime, the Union Square Theater was advertised as 'the model temple of amusement.'"

Later, as B.F. Keith's, "in 1908 it was converted entirely to films, ultimately 'dabbling in the most dubious activities that a picture house can indulge in,' according to J. C. Furnas in The New York Herald Tribune of 1932, alluding to racy films and sex lectures."

In 1936, the theater was broken up and sealed off to make room for stores and office space. But somewhere in the new construction's recesses, theatrical glories lived on.

Wrote Christopher Gray, "The ceiling still has its old gold and ivory paint and two large cupolas, into which huge ventilation ducts have been inserted. The only part that is not visible is the proscenium arch, and it is conceivable that the arch and its Shakespeare medallion are still intact. Short of a serious documentation effort by the owner, only demolition promises a really complete view of what is left of the old Union Square Theater."

In New York Magazine's "Glass Stampede" round-up, Justin Davidson recalls the corner, saying, "Davis Brody Bond’s apartments are basically a support for Metronome, the ever-puzzling steam-breathing artwork that tells time but remains silent about history. The legendary Union Square Theater stood on this site and should never have been allowed to rot."


EV Grieve said...

Given how many theaters there used to be in NYC... I'm wonderful how many are like the former Union Square Theater — trapped inside the shell of another structure waiting to be unearthed one day. I've pointed out a few in the EV....

And Cinema Treasures is indispensable!

Ken Mac said...

i remember the demolition. I walked in. There was purple satin hanging from the walls. I picked up a piece of cast iron formed in the shape of a F hole like you see in some old guitars. still have it.

Laura Goggin Photography said...


I've been going through a lot of old photos of the city from the late 1800s through 1940 or so and it seems there were one or two theaters on every block. I wonder how many there were at their peak? The variety of live entertainment must have been fantastic.

Grade "A" Fancy said...

Reminds me of going to a party in a 2nd floor derelict Jefferson theater on 14th St.; musta been 1981.

(Oh, it's called the Metronome? Always known to us as "The Steaming Turd")

Media glut said...

Like Goggla says, one or two on every block.
I can't help but thing about all the entertainers who got work in those theaters. Must have been a lot of them.
Now, with centralized corporate entertainment, very few are chosen while even more are called.

chris flash said...

I was passing by one day as they were demolishing the row of affordable stores on that block, astonished at the theater revealed when they removed the facade of a furniture store there. It sickened me to see this beautiful dead theater. Why couldn't they have restored the theater and built their yuppie ghetto upstairs around it?