Hamilton Theatre in Harlem, 1915

January 9, 2014

Constructed in 1912-13 as a vaudeville house during one of NewYork’s theater building booms, the Hamilton Theater is located in the Hamilton Heights area of Harlem. Designed by the great theater architect, Thomas W. Lamb, the building is one of his significant pre-World War I theaters in New York City. Lamb also designed the Regent and Hollywood Theaters, both designated New York City landmarks. The Hamilton’s developers, B .S. Moss and Solomon Brill, were major builders and operators of vaudeville houses and movie theaters in the New York City area. At the time, vaudeville was the most popular form of theater in the United States. The Hamilton’s two neo-Renaissance style facades, facing Broadway and West 146th Street, are dominated by large, round-arched windows with centered oculi. The upper stones feature cast-iron and terra-cotta details including caryatids, brackets, and Corinthian engaged columns.

In the 1920’s, movies eclipsed vaudeville in popularity; in 1928, the Hamilton was sold to the newly-created Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Radio Pictures, Inc., which converted it to one of the first movie theaters to show “talking pictures” in New York City. The theater’s final screening took place in 1958; afterwards, it was used as a sports arena, a discotheque, and a church. The Hamilton Theater’s imposing terra-cotta facade is a reminder of the prominent place held by vaudeville houses and movie theaters in New York City’s diverse, early twentieth-century neighborhoods, and is a tribute to its talented architect, Thomas W. Lamb.

Annexed to New York City in 1873, Harlem developed much of its current residential character during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. With elevated lines serving Second, Third, and Eighth Avenues by 1880, the blocks of central Harlem quickly filled with speculatively-builtrowhouses, such as those found in the Mount Morris Park Historic District. Change, however, came more gradually to the hills overlooking the Hudson River to the west.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the area around the Hamilton Theater was known as Carmansville/ Richard F. Carman began purchasing farm land near what is now West 152th Street as early as the mid-1830s. He built a summer residence for himself at Fort Washington in the 1840s and then established a village named after himself to the south.

Transportation played a key role in the development of the area, which by the late nineteenth century was called lower Washington Heights.” In the late 1880s, a cable street railway was installed on Tenth Avenue between 125″* and 135*” Streets, providing a much-needed transit link to the downtown commercial district. Not only had most streets been paved by this time, but with the support of the Washington Heights Taxpayers Association and other civic-minded groups, the city announced plans to construct an iron viaduct at West 155* Street linking the proposed Central (now Macomb’s Dam) Bridge with St. Nicholas Place (the viaduct and the bridge are both designated New York City Landmarks). This ambitious scheme was intended to improve vehicular circulation, connecting the Bronx to Harlem and the Upper West Side. Consequently, real estate interest in lower Washington Heights surged after 1890. By the early 1890s, the area had grown to include hundreds of houses.

In addition, a number of churches and institutional buildings had been constructed in and around the village, as well as a hotel, a cemetery, a police station. The neighborhood also had several industrial buildings located on Tenth Avenue (known as Amsterdam Avenue after 1890), such as the Joseph Loth & Company Ribbon Mill between West 150″* and West 151″ Streets and Broadway, in this area, was then known as the Boulevard, and later as the Boulevard Lafayette. The opening of the Interborough Rapid Transit subway along Broadway in 1904 ignited another round of speculative development. The area attracted a mix of middle to upper middle-class professionals.

Census records document doctors, lawyers, merchants, as well as occasional live-in servants of various races and ethnicities. Native-born whites tended to dominate the population, but there were also immigrants from lreland, Italy, and Germany. Accompanying the residential construction were buildings for various religious, educational, and cultural institutions, as well as commercial concerns, including theaters featuring popular entertainment.

On February 27, 1912, vaudeville operator Benjamin S. Moss and theater developer Solomon Brill formed the Bradhurst Amusement & Building Company “to engage in the theatrical business in all its branches, including to develop lands, to maintain a theatrical and vaudeville agency, to engage in moving picture enterprise, to employ artists, [etc],” with an initial capital stock of $50,000. On March 5th, the company entered into a twenty-one year lease with an option of three renewals with Florence A. Acker for ten unimproved building lots located at the northeast comer of Broadway and West 146* Street, with two additional lots extending through the block to West 147* Street. A few days later, the Real Estate Record and Guide announced that the theatrical firm of Moss & Brill would soon build a 2,500 seat theater on the site, and that the building would also include ground-story stores, a roof garden, a basement rathskeller, and assembly rooms and offices on the upper floors.

Later in March, architect Thomas W. Lamb filed plans with the Department of Buildings for theater and loft building to cost $150,000.

Moss & Brill’s new theater was at first named the “Lafayette,” perhaps as a historical link to its location along the stretch of Broadway that was called the Boulevard Lafayette until 1899. Before its completion, however, the theater was renamed “Moss & Brill’s Hamilton Theatre,” possibly to avoid confusion with a nearby theater also named the “Lafayette” that was under construction at the same time.^ Lamb’s plans for the Hamilton’s terra-cotta facade consisted of a polished granite base with cast-iron bulkheads, plate-glass show windows with prisms-glass transoms, terracotta balustrades and cast-iron caryatid columns at the second story, elaborate third-story fenestration with cast-iron millions and centered oculi, and a prominent terra-cotta cornice with masked finials.

The elaborate entryway to the theater featured an arched transom, central medallion with an outstretched eagle flanked by winged angels and urns, and a scrolled copper marquee with a central mask and glass pendants. Brass eagles holding suspended globes at the comers and center of the facade were later eliminated from the plans.

The Hamilton Theater was built during a period when New York was experiencing, according to the Real Estate Record and Guide, “one of the greatest theatre building booms in its history.”” Thirty-six theater projects were underway in 1912, eleven of which had been designed by Lamb, including the Hamilton. The demand for new theaters reflected the rapid growth of the city’s neighborhoods and the increasing popularity of vaudeville and motion pictures. The escalating price of admission to downtown theaters, and the time and expense associated with traveling downtown from outlying residential areas encouraged the construction of neighborhood theaters. In addition, the cheaper and more accessible neighborhood theaters attracted a new audience of teenage patrons who resided and attended school nearby.

Construction of Moss & Brill’s Hamilton Theater, which began on June 26, 1912, proceeded at a very fast pace; it opened on January 23, 1913, a little more than six months after building commenced. On opening night, there were performances by the theater’s resident orchestra, a series of short dramas, several comedians, an acrobatic act, and short motion pictures. Besides a schedule of performances, a list of admission prices, and the hours of operation, the printed program for the evening included a comprehensive description of the theater’s interior and systems, including dimensions, materials, and decoration. Inexplicably, George Keister, another prominent theater architect, was credited with its design, but no evidence connecting him with the Hamilton’s construction has been found.

Many of the construction and contracting firms that produced the Hamilton took advertising space in the opening night program, including the Vogel Cabinet Company – architectural woodwork and building trim; Fostaria Incandescent Lamp Works – lighting; William Dauphin – bronze and ironwork; Cassidy & Son Manufacturing Company – light fixtures; Superior Cornice Works – roofing; and Strauss & Company -signage. The general contractor was Cramp & Company, which also built the Palace and Jefferson Theaters. The terra cotta was supplied by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, one of the major suppliers of building material at that time.

When Solomon Brill ended his association with the Hamilton in 1915, Moss & Brill’s Hamilton Theater was renamed simply the “B.S. Moss Hamilton Theatre.”” In 1920, Moss and E.F. Albee of the Keith & Proctor vaudeville chain combined their interests into the Greater New York Vaudeville Theaters Corp., which assumed management of the Hamilton and renamed it “B.F. Keith’s Hamilton Theater.” Moss continued to showcase vaudeville acts and current photo-plays at the Hamilton until he retired in 1928, selling off his theater interests, including the Hamilton’s leasehold, to Radio-Keith-Orpheum(RKO) Radio Pictures. RKO eliminated vaudeville from the Hamilton, installed a sound system, and converted it to one of the first movie theaters to show “talking pictures” in New York City. Under RKO’s ownership, the theater’s interior was redecorated in 1943 and its lobby modernized in 1954. That year, RKO purchased the underlying land from the Acker estate. RKO closed the Hamilton in 1958, leasing it for use as a sports arena and then as a discotheque. An evangelical church purchased the building in 1965, selling it to investors in the mid-1990s; the theater auditorium has remained vacant since that time, although the storefronts have been continually occupied. The marquee was removed in 1995, when the lobby was converted to retail space.

The Hamilton Theater, located at the northeast comer of Broadway and West 146th Street, is composed of two buildings connected by a one-story passageway across an alley between the buildings. The alley, which runs parallel to Broadway, is entered from 146th Street through a non-historic metal gate. The three-story west building has stores at ground level and commercial space on its upper floors. It has two neo-Renaissance style facades, dominated by two-story, arched bays, facing Broadway and West 146th Street. The facades are five and four bays wide, respectively. The facades feature terra-cotta columns at ground-level with granite bases and molded capitals. They flank arched openings, with scrolled keystones, containing non-historic storefront infill consisting of masonry, aluminum, and glass, with security gates and projecting box awnings/signs. The entrance to the theater lobby and the theater marquee, originally located at the center bay on Broadway, have been removed.

The second bay from the comer, facing 146th Street, retains historic masonry infill at ground level.

The upper facades feature two-story arches with wide architraves and scrolled, foliate keystones. The center arch on Broadway has a prominent keystone decorated with a wreath and festoons. The arches contain elaborate cast-iron, wood and glass infill, consisting of balustrades and caryatids at the second floor, wide spandrels with prominent wave moldings, and large, round-arched windows with molded and curved enframents and centered oculi at the third floor. The bays are flanked by terra-cotta piers and Corinthian engaged columns supporting entablatures, urns and scrolled brackets with masks. The original, elaborate terra-cotta cornice, which featured paired, scrolled brackets dentils, and surmounting masks, was replaced with a paneled brick parapet wall in the 1930s. There is a non-historic projecting sign at the south comer of the Broadway facade.

The east building, facing West 146th Street, which contains the theater itself, has a brick elevation containing fire exits from the orchestra and stage entrances at the ground story, and additional exits from the balcony and boxes onto covered, iron balconies with stairs and a ladder leading to the sidewalk. Sorre of the exits have non-historic security gates. There is a single window at balcony level. The north elevation, partially visible through the lot facing West 147th Street (not part of this designation) has plain red brick without ornamentation, random fenestration, non-historic sash, and fire exits located similarly to those that face 146th Street. The brick elevations of both the east and west buildings, which face the alley, have random fenestration, historic and non-historic sash, and non-historic security grilles. There is a wooden water tower on the roof.


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