By Jack Nieman
There’s a building, on Third Avenue and 72nd Street, that I walk by and think, “Hmm… that’s a pretty neat building.” It’s not the most flamboyant; in fact, I think it fits quite nicely within its surroundings. But the ornament, including its arched windows and fluted pilasters, is memorable, and right below its detailed cornice lies its name, carved into the building: “The Bay Ridge Theater.”
This building has a rich history in the neighborhood—and, with a little investment and vision, could become something so significant again. It was once a colossus, the beloved Loew’s Bay Ridge Theater, a film house that operated during “the golden age of cinema,” from the late 1920s to the early ’60s. When it opened its doors in 1915, it was “the most palatial amusement building in New York,” Matthew Scarpa writes in his book Old Bay Ridge & Ovington Village. It was dedicated to the people of Bay Ridge, and its incorporators pledged to “make the Bay Ridge Theater one of the finest and handsomest theatres in the land.” The institution’s motto was to make its performances as attractive and tasteful as the aesthetic appeal.
Indeed, it was the building’s aesthetics that first allured me. The architect, Robert T. Rasmussen, designed it in the style known as “Renaissance Revival,” or “Neo-Renaissance,” drawn from the architecture of 15th- through 17-century Italy, France, and England. While less grandiose, it’s in the same architectural family as Grand Central Terminal, the Custom House at Bowling Green, and the New York Public Library. I like to think of it as Bay Ridge’s version of these New York icons.
Now, I love old movies, and—if you haven’t picked up from the candor with which I marvel at timeworn edifices—I am an unabashed romantic. In my mind, the Roaring Twenties in New York City must have been the pinnacle of urban expression, the peak of everything that is glamorous and seductive about this city: the jazz, the motion pictures, Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. F. Scott Fitzgerald (of course) captures the mood best in Gatsby: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.”
I wanted to experience the Bay Ridge Theater as a Ridgite might have during its heyday, and in my limited research, I slowly but surely was able to piece together a more realistic impression of what this theater, and what that time, must have been like.
Look at the above newspaper clip: “All Bay Ridge Joins in Celebrating the Return of Vaudeville to Leow’s Bay Ridge Theatre,” an event that included “stage and screen guest stars in person,” and a “big night street parade.” (Right below, there’s an advertisement for Uncle Tom’s Tavern, conveniently located right across the street, where one can have “beer and all that goes with it.” I especially liked that Ruppert “Knickerbocker” Beer and Pabst was on tap that night!)
Such old newspaper clippings reveals what films the theater was showing at the time. At one point it ran Hell Below with Robert Montgomery. At another, Cocktail Hour with Randolph Scott, College Humor with Bing Crosby. The Hubert Selby Jr. short story, “Double Feature,” is set inside the Bay Ridge Theater, and it gives great detail as to the look and feel of the place.
To me the Bay Ridge Theater is not only a nice building to look at but also a lost resource and public amenity. For decades it contributed to the economic prosperity of the community, until it officially shut down in 1962—and became a bingo club, whose sign on the side of the building was still visible for decades. Today, it’s a McDonalds, New York Sports Club, and Rite Aid.
But I wish the building could still embody the pride it once did.
Imagine if we could recapture the site’s former artistic vitality? If we could take a significant landmark structure and adopt it for a new use? How about we redevelop an old gilded-age theater institution, and make it a new one?
I don’t have anything against McDonalds, the New York Sports Club, or Rite Aid per se, but I don’t think they belong in this particular building. By having those facilities in the shell of the old Bay Ridge Theater, the community has missed out on an opportunity to showcase a historically significant structure, to weave it into the urban fabric and achieve a grand civic purpose.
The building has a central presence on Third Avenue, and yet it fails to connect pedestrians in any coherent or meaningful way. I propose that the city does something drastically different with the building—make it a vibrant part of the Bay Ridge community by first landmarking it as an historic building, and then by turning it into a Nonprofit Cultural Arts Center. Instead of being an institute of the Big Mac, make it an Institute of Art, an Institute of Film.
For those of us who have ever left a theater feeling transformed, and for those of us who think moviemaking is an art form worthy of elevated status in society, let us shine a light on what was and what could be within our very own neighborhood.
The new Bay Ridge Theater, let’s call it the Bay Ridge Film Institute, could be a platform for documentaries and independent feature films. It can be set up to support artists by running educational labs. The Sundance Film Festival has achieved this by finding financing for filmmakers, and by helping them to network. The Bay Ridge Theater could connect to citywide independent and feature filmmakers.
People could apply to a fund—a “Documentary Fund,” or a “Young Bay Ridge Artists Fund”—and become a grantee. Labs and workshops could include work in-progress screenings, guest lecture screenings and other creative programming. Essentially, this is where the true development process would originate. Through various awards and other support mechanisms, the Bay Ridge Theater would help incubate young artists so that they can bring their own creations to the level of their personal satisfaction.
Bay Ridge could tap into NYC’s theatrical distribution capability. Grassroots projects could be exported to the larger city by competing in film festivals like the Tribeca Film Festival. And why limit it to just film? The nonprofit can embody a wide array of activities: music concerts, dance performances, exhibitions, sporting events, shopping and dining. Ok, maybe not the last two, but you get my point—the possibilities are endless.
Admittedly, this is not a novel idea. There have been plenty of successful examples where this type of redevelopment has succeeded. My favorite example, and my inspiration for this blog post, is the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York. It occupies the old Rome Theater, a Spanish mission-style theater built in 1925, and showcases independent, documentary and world cinema, and it provides educational programs for children in underserved communities. It has helped revive Pleasantville.
Any pragmatists reading this are probably raising their eyebrows in disbelief. Is this guy serious? How would a nonprofit secure financing for the site’s capital improvements? Wouldn’t this require some significant interior gut renovation, if not complete and utter demolition? How would one go about reconfiguring a building from a gym, fast-food chain, and drugstore to a performance auditorium?
I am not going to pretend to have all the answers. Heck, I’m just trying to stir up a little discussion. Restoring and repurposing a historic building might not be everyone’s priority. Maybe it doesn’t matter to you, or maybe you’re one of the gymgoers who likes pumping iron in a space that makes you feel like “The David.” New York City is full of odd and quirky spaces like that, and perhaps there’s some value to that too. Who remembers Café Edison in Times Square? Now that was a diner!
But restoring the Bay Ridge Theater isn’t just about restoring some relic of the past, but about giving it a new life that complements its history. Nowadays, its glory is known only to a select few. Interior admiration comes with a price—$29.95/month, to be exact—and the privilege to be a member of the New York Sports Club.
Jack Nieman graduated from the Master of Urban Planning program at Hunter College. He obviously spends too much time looking at old buildings and trying to recreate the past in his mind.