Beyond the Village and Back: The United Palace Theatre
In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.
Tucked into the Meredith Jacobson Marciano New York in the 1970s to 9-11 collection of our Historic Image Archive is an image of the United Palace Theatre at 4140 Broadway at 175th Street in Washington Heights. With its close-up and upward-facing viewpoint, the image captures the intricacy and nobility of the building’s design. Originally constructed as one of five Loew’s Wonder Theatres in 1929-1930 and designed by Scottish-born and New York City-based architect Thomas W. Lamb, the former movie palace – the first of its kind in this neighborhood – sits at the crux of cinema, television, and American religious history, filling a whole block between 175th and 176th Streets. Without a doubt it’s one of New York’s great surviving movie palaces from the pre-War years, and while miles away from Greenwich Village, bears many critical connections to our neighborhood.
The Loew’s 175th Street Theatre opened on February 22nd, 1930, the last of the company’s five Wonder Theatres, which included the Loew’s Paradise in the Bronx, the Loew’s Kings in Brooklyn, the Loew’s Valencia in Queens, and the Loew’s Jersey. On its opening night, the theater showed the films Their Own Desire and Pearls, as well as a live vaudeville show featuring Al Shaw and Sam Lee. Movie palaces like this one were highly fashionable at this time, providing musical, comedic, magical, and cinematic entertainment for audiences of several thousand at a price as low as 25 cents. The Loew’s 175th Street Theatre, called by the press “one of the most costly and elaborate” in the Loew’s chain, hosted movie stars Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Joan Crawford over the course of its four decades of operation.
The style of the theater’s architecture has been debated heartily over time, called “Mayan-inspired,” “Indo-Persian,” and “Cambodian neo-Classical.” In his book On Broadway: A Journey Uptown Over Time, New York City built environment journalist David W. Dunlap called the building “Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco.” Journalist Nathaniel Adams meanwhile called it a “kitchen-sink masterpiece.” Despite the theater’s freewheeling and almost un-nameable design, it is certainly a reflection of the then-contemporary cultural obsession with “the Orient” and “Far East” – and more broadly with anything perceived to be “exotic” or “other.” Architect Lamb, responsible for over 300 theaters around the world, argued that “exotic ornaments, colors and scenes are particularly effective in creating an atmosphere in which the mind is free to frolic and becomes receptive to entertainment,” emphasizing the relationship between immersion in fantasy in both film and architecture.
By the mid-1960s, large urban movie theaters such as this one were becoming difficult to maintain economically. Middle-class families in New York City were relocating en masse to the suburbs, where “multiplex” theaters were cropping up with abundance, and the advent of television lured people away from the theater. Because of divestiture, Loew’s, as with other chains, was prohibited from opening theaters in the suburbs, and as a result had difficulty maintaining the theaters it already had. The Loew’s 175th Street Theatre actually survived much longer than many others, well-attended throughout the 1960s.
But on April 4th, 1969, Loew’s sold the theater building to the United Christian Evangelic Association, and the Reverend Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, or “Reverend Ike,” gave the building new life as the United Palace. Taking full advantage of the rising dominance of television in American culture, Reverend Ike became the first African American religious leader to host a television program in 1973. As the United Palace developed one of the largest congregations in the nation, the show allowed Reverend Ike to access even more people than would fit in the 3,000-seat auditorium. He was a diligent steward of the building, making one permanent change: the addition of the “Miracle Star of Faith” to the cupola on the northeast corner of the structure. By 2014, the building had transitioned to the hands of the nonprofit United Palace of Cultural Arts, founded by Reverend Ike’s son Xavier Eikerenkoetter, and featured artistic programming, movies, and Sunday services. By 2018, the church continued to own the building, though the Eikerenkoetter family was no longer involved in the church.
The striking United Palace is not only the city’s fourth-largest theater, but also remains remarkably unchanged since its time of construction – both on the interior as on the exterior. As of 2016, it still had the original entrance doors, box office, vertical blade sign, and corner marquee. One of the best treasures remaining within the building by 2018 was the Robert Morton “Wonder Morton” pipe organ, one of the many that lived in each of the Loew’s Theaters. Shockingly, the organ sat under the theater stage for 25 years before being rediscovered in 1970. In 2016, the New York Theater Organ Society and UPCA together raised a million dollars to renovate the organ, which had by then suffered water damage, making it the “only remaining consistently used theatre organ” in the city. The building itself was designated a New York City landmark on December 13th, 2016.
Although the United Palace Theatre of Washington Heights may seem worlds away from the Village in many ways (it’s a full 22 stops on the No. 1 train from 14th Street), it is connected and indebted to our neighborhood in a number of ways. For starters, the incredible interiors were designed, along with Thomas Lamb, by the Rambusch Decorating Co., which for over 100 yrs was located at 40 West 13th Street. Housed in the seven-story building accented with a Gothic archway at its main entrance, the Rambusch firm specialized in decorating the interiors of churches, especially stained glass windows. Then, in the 1910s and 1920s, the company found itself with a whole new set of clients who wanted to build movie palaces. Caught up in this cinematic building boom, Rambusch applied many of the same features to movie palaces and theaters as it did to churches, becoming New York’s preeminent interior design firm for much of the 20th century. Although the Rambusch designers could not have known that the Loew’s 175th Street Theatre would become a church later in its life, the distinctive design which helps make the building so special was infused with religious architectural influences that the Greenwich Village-based firm had perfected in earlier works, accentuating the intricate relationship between religion, theater, and cinema at this particular moment in New York City history.
Thomas Lamb also designed a number of buildings in the Village. In addition to several now-demolished theaters, he was responsible for the design of 51 Fifth Avenue. This 16-story Colonial Revival-style apartment building, uncharacteristically restrained for the extravagant architect, was constructed by 1928. The building boasts several prominent residents, including former N.Y. Governor and first Catholic major party Presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith, and landscape artist Jane Freilicher, who painted the views from her apartment here until her death in 2014. Village Preservation included this building in a recent letter to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, calling for the landmark designation for a number of buildings in the neighborhood south of Union Square, an area that is currently facing extreme development pressures that threaten its unique architectural and cultural fabric.
Still, there’s an even more poignant connection between the otherworldly theater and the Village. Appropriately enough for a theater that was about the marriage of fantasy in architecture and film, the very last film shown at the Loew’s 175th Street in 1969 before it became a church was 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed and co-written by Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999). Kubrick’s career owes a great deal to Greenwich Village, where he settled in 1949 and lived for years. It was at the chess tables in Washington Square Park where he earned enough money to finance his first film, Day of the Fight. This 16-minute documentary told the story of a Bronx-born Greenwich Village boxer named Walter Cartier whom Kubrick had photographed for Look magazine, thus beginning Kubrick’s own odyssey as one of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers.
According to Reverend Ike’s son Xavier Eikerenkoetter, the Reverend and his wife Eula Mae attended the showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Loew’s Theatre, and “the building made such an impression that they actually arranged with the management … so that they could move into the building the next day.” $600,000 dollars later, the movie palace was conveyed. The history of the majestic United Palace Theatre building, rife with many distinct architectural and cultural trends, takes us, again and again, beyond the Village and back.