A Look Back at the Public Theater

A Look Back at the Public Theater

Literary light fixture in the Public Theater’s lobby, known as the “Shakespeare Machine”. Photo by GVSHP.

Tomorrow, Saturday, October 13th, the Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street (off Astor Place) will be hosting a block party to celebrate the re-dedication of their historic theater space, and you’re invited! The block party will run from noon to 5pm and will also feature an open house in the historic NoHo space. According to their website, this event will include sneak peeks from new musicals, live outdoor performances, gourmet food trucks, and tastings from their new menu. And, of course, you’ll get to absorb the rich history and design of this designated city landmark!

The Public’s new lounge, “The Library at the Public”, will also be open tomorrow. As many of our readers will pick up, this name pays homage to the building’s original use as the Astor Library. A lot has already been written about the theater’s revitalization project in the past few weeks, but did you know that the building itself was months from being demolished in 1965?

Now & Then: (top) The Public Theater in 2012; (bottom) As the Astor Library, May 12, 1907 by George F. Arata. Historic image courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York.

As the name suggests, the prominent Astor family commissioned the exceptional structure. Begun in 1849 and completed in 1881, the early Victorian building was actually designed by three different architects in three different phases: Alexander Saeltzer designed the south wing (built 1849-1853), Griffith Thomas designed the central section (built 1856-1859), and Thomas Stent designed the north wing (built 1879-1881).

The library was “the first great classical library broadly accessible to the public and set the example for such institutions as the Morgan Library [at 29 East 36th Street] and the Huntington Library [in San Marino, California]”, according to the designation report on our Resources page.

For such a remarkable building, you’d never think it came this close to the wrecking ball nearly 50 years ago. Before it was designated one of the city’s first landmarks by the newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the Astor Library had become “one of the city’s more notable white elephants, fated to go the way of Penn Station and the Brokaw mansion”, in the words of well-known critic Ada Louise Huxtable in a fascinating 1966 New York Times article. Entitled “A Landmark Saved: Historic Building Scheduled for Razing Is Rescued With Aid of City’s New Law”, the article describes at length the battle to save the building from certain demolition.

Indeed, the building stands today as a testament to the early years of the landmarks law. Huxtable even begins her article with the declaration that:
“New York City has scored its first major preservation success under its 18-month old landmarks law with the dramatic announcement of Joseph Papp’s plans to purchase the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street as the Shakespeare Festival’s new home. Scheduled for the wrecker’s ball six months ago, the miraculous last-ditch rescue of the Victorian red brick and brownstone structure is a bit of appropriate 19th-century melodrama calculated to make any 20th-century cynic’s heart melt. On a less emotional level, it may also indicate the power of the New York landmarks law to turn the tide in the fortunes of the city’s historic heritage.”

Securing landmark designation set the stage for the building’s comeback, but it was only the first step. According to Huxtable, theatrical producer and director Joseph Papp contacted the LPC in hopes of finding a “landmark building” for his theater. (A preservationist at heart, Papp would go on to help found the “Save the Theatres” group in the 1980s in an effort to prevent the loss of historic theaters in Manhattan’s Theater District.)  Though he had a few locations in mind, the Commission suggested he look into the Astor Library. And so the next key player in the building’s preservation was in place.

New York Times article written by Ada Louise Huxtable on January 6, 1966. The photo shows a portion of the old library to be converted to theater use.

Just a few short years after the loss of the original Penn Station, Papp’s vision to breathe new life into an aging building had a profound impact. Opening as the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater in 1966, the space was transformed by architect Giorgio Cavaglieri (1912-2007), one of our “preservation pioneers”. (You might recognize Cavaglieri as the man who also led the conversion of the Jefferson Market Courthouse into the Jefferson Park Library at this same time. Read more in earlier Off the Grid posts).

The State and National Register Report (1969) noted that the adaptive reuse project included “a cultural facility containing three legitimate theaters (two of 300 seats, one of 100 seats), an avant-garde 104-seat cinema, one chamber concert hall, two art galleries, and technical and administrative facilities for the Shakespeare Festival.”

Lafayette Street between Astor Place and East 4th Street will be partially closed to traffic for Saturday’s block party.

Tomorrow’s block party will cap a four-year $40 million revitalization project that returns theater to the neighborhood and introduces some new features to the landmark itself. On the facade, a louvered glass canopy, glass paneled doors and entry steps mark the entrance to the theater lobby.

As part of the celebration, the Public will be hosting special events for the next eight weeks, so if you can’t make it out tomorrow be sure to check out these performances. Also, if you’re interested in reading more about historic theaters in our neighborhoods, please explore these Off the Grid posts!

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Amanda
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Amanda was GVSHP's Director of Preservation & Research from January 2012 to July 2015.

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  1. […] and the Huntington Library. At the public hearing on October 26, 1965, the LPC found that, “The Astor Library has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the […]

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