REVIVING THE TIMES SQUARE THEATER

Following decades of neglect, conversion, and demolition, in the late 80s, Times Square theaters began a revival that ignited the resurgence of the district. Since the Depression, many historic theaters in the area had been converted to run cheap films, adult entertainment, or were demolished. As  Disney and Mayor Giuliani pushed for transformation, preservationists fought to take back the surviving theaters, eventually restoring many to their original glory. One of these original opulent theaters that solidified Times Square as the city’s theater district narrowly averted multiple demolition attempts but failed at adaptive reuses for three decades. Today this legendary but forgotten theater is undergoing a dynamic multi-level renovation to be transformed into an iconic retail destination in the heart of one of the world’s most visible and energetic environs.

The Times Square, two years after opening (1922)

The Times Square, two years after opening (1922)

Originally known as Longacre Square, the horse carriage district on the outskirts of the city was renamed Times Square in 1904 after The New York Times relocated their headquarters from Lower Manhattan to a small triangular lot at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue at 42nd Street. With the northward growth of Manhattan, the area soon became the new home of the entertainment district, which was quickly accelerated by the introduction of electricity, lighting up billboards and powering the first subway, the IRT, which went right under Times Square on its route between City Hall and Harlem. Theaters quickly followed the northward journey, moving from Union and Madison Squares to Broadway and the adjacent Times Square blocks.  As middle and upper-class crowds converged on the district, restaurants, cafes, and hotels quickly engulfed the surrounding blocks. With the construction of Penn Station and Grand Central in 1910 and 1913, the city’s second central business district, Midtown, was quickly developing with Times Square at the center of the action.

Times Square Theater interior, 1920.

Times Square Theater interior, 1920.

The explosion of theaters during the Roaring Twenties cemented Broadway and Times Square as the city’s theater district, with thirty venues popping up along The Great White Way – the lustrous nickname for the area that had become known for its resplendent glowing signage. One of the earliest theaters, Times Square Theater, developed by the Selwyn Brothers, was completed in 1920 on West 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue. Designed by Eugene De Rosa, who designed many of the prominent theaters in the area including the Belmont, Broadway, Criterion, and Vanderbilt the Times Square was one of two twin theaters with the Apollo next door, also designed by De Rosa & Periera. Although located on 43rd Street, the Apollo’s entrance shared a facade with the Times Square, which connected to the theater via a 100-foot corridor.




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The Times Square Theater opened in September 1920 with a production of The Mirage, starring Florence Reed and had many successful shows over the decade before going bankrupt during the Great Depression. The Selwyn Theater across the street was the first of the brother's theaters to be converted from live theater to film, with the invention of the 'Teleview’ an early film apparatus that was fixed to the viewer’s seat using an alternate-frame sequencing method of stereoscopic 3D projection. The Selwyn premiered the technology but ended up being the only theater to employ it as films quickly became the new standard.

All three Selwyn theaters would file for bankruptcy during the Depression; in 1933 the Times Square presented its last live performance and the theater was leased to a new management company, who converted it to show low-budget sensationalist and exploitative films known as “grind-house.” Many other Times Square theaters faced the same fate during the Depression, with conversions to movie theaters, night clubs, and music venues. In 1940 the Times Square’s status as a movie theater was solidified with the insertion of a brick wall behind the screen, dividing the stage in half so retail could occupy the eastern frontage of the lot. Despite the decline in programming, the films kept the Times Square Theater’s doors open when other theaters in the neighborhood faced an even worse fate; demolition. In 1946 Brandt – the company that purchased the Times Square and surrounding five properties – sought to demolish the row of buildings to make way for a skyscraper hotel. The plans were never realized and Brandt affirmed their interest in the theater district, quoted in the Times as being "inspired by a conviction that the amusement center of the city was firmly anchored in the Times Square and Forty-second Street neighborhood.” Despite this, the Times noted Brandt had rejected previous offers to return the old theaters to their "legitimate" use.

The theater never recovered its grandeur of the twenties, and despite the city recovering from the Depression and a booming economy in the postwar years, movies quickly became the most popular form of entertainment and many theaters would never revert to live performances. The Times Square survived for the next several decades showing films, while the nearby Belmont and Vanderbilt theaters – designed by the same architect – were demolished.  Brandt’s dreams for a skyscraper hotel, while not realized on their West 42nd Street site, were emblematic of planners and developers’ vision for Times Square in the postwar decades.

Large-scale masterplan proposals Multiple public and private large-scale masterplan proposal proposals during this time period reflected the changing landscape of urban planning in and around Times Square. In 1969, the Regional Plan Association published a report proposing multi-level pedestrian connectors along 42nd Street, including "a mechanical aid to pedestrian circulation, such as a moving belt or new type of shuttle train.” The report also looked at closing Broadway at Times Square for pedestrian use, and an office development of skyscrapers “as large as three World Trade Centers” on the west side of Times Square.

Times Square Theater with the Apollo on the left and retail on the right, 1979.

Times Square Theater with the Apollo on the left and retail on the right, 1979.

By the 1970s, the theaters and movie palaces had dramatically deteriorated physically and programmatically, featuring action films, porn, and peep shows. Crime was rampant and unmanageable, causing planners and developers to think of ways to control public spaces and clean up the area. The Marriot Marquis hotel development in the middle of Times Square illustrated this changing urbanism. The development replaced two historic theaters with a modernist hotel tower that was inwardly oriented with a full-height atrium, as the New York Times’s architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote when the hotel opened, “The Marriott seems to exist for people who would never think of walking the sidewalks of Manhattan.”

The demolition of the theaters that preceded the Marriot hotel – the Morosco and Helen Hayes in 1982 – was a shock for preservationists and theater advocates, igniting protests and eventually leading to the landmarking of twenty-eight theaters in 1988. The Times Square was considered for landmarking and a public hearing was held, but the theater was never designated, likely because it was not operating as a “legitimate” theater. In 1989 the theater closed and a year later it was included in a 99-year sublease along with six other 42nd Street theaters under the recently established organization, The New 42nd Street, an independent, non-profit entrusted with the restoration and oversight of the 42nd Street theaters between 7th and 8th Avenues.

“A City at 42nd Street” proposal, which restored the facade of the Times Square while demolishing the rest for an exhibit atrium.

“A City at 42nd Street” proposal, which restored the facade of the Times Square while demolishing the rest for an exhibit atrium.

One of the earliest large scale development proposals, titled A City at 42nd Street (above), proposed covering 42nd street in order to create a “theme-park like development” that the Times labeled “the biggest discotheque in the city.” Backed by the Ford Foundation and the 42nd St Redevelopment Corporation, the plan would have required the condemnation of several blocks to make way for “two glass-enclosed atriums, electronic signs, bridges crisscrossing 42d street, and escalators moving through a complex set of spaces making up the display area that will be woven around the old theaters.” (New York Times) The plan was later redesigned for a 500,000 square-foot exhibition and entertainment center, a fifteen-story indoor Ferris wheel, retail shops, restaurants, 4 million square feet of office space and a 2.1 million square feet merchandise mart.  As part of the proposal, the Times Square Theater’s facade would be restored, with the rest of the building demolished and repurposed for an exhibit atrium. Despite general public support, Mayor Koch despised the plan, saying it was too much like Disneyland, putting an end to the proposal which required commitment from the city.

The biggest battle would be over the heart of district – the New York Times’ former headquarters, the Times Tower and surrounding buildings – which faced demolition for a city-backed urban renewal project of postmodern office towers (above). The large office towers would have transformed the area into an office complex and left the Times Square theater in the shadow of a large glass and granite tower. Preservationists and theater groups quickly banded together opposing the development. After a decade-long battle and multiple lawsuits, the postmodern development was abandoned and the Times Square Theater and Times Tower were saved. However, the city still planned to restore the 42nd Street theaters and reduce crime and sex entertainment. In 1992 in order to jump-start the revitalization, the city and state released a plan titled 42nd Street Now!, which recommended a set of guidelines for retail, entertainment, and hotel complex with vibrant signage, as seen in the rendering above (below). A year later, Disney signed a deal for the restoration of the largest theater on the block, The New Amsterdam. Disney's presence signaled the tourist-oriented, entertainment and retail revival that was begging to take ahold of Times Square.

While the other theaters on the block were restored in the 1990s, the Times Square underwent various attempted repurposes including a professional wrestling-themed restaurant and store, a comedy club, and a gladiator themed restaurant. All of these proposals fell through, and the theater sat boarded up as the surrounding environment became a major tourist destination, with bright signs, costumed characters, pedestrian plazas and large crowds visiting theaters, stores and restaurants. In 2005 Ecko Unlimited clothing leased the theater with the intention of converting it into a store but soon abandoned plans, then in 2012 a Marvel Comics-themed restaurant met the same fate.

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