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Loew's Wonder Theaters

Betsy Williams, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, Department of Islamic Art

Posted: Monday, May 14, 2012

«For a while now I've been obsessed with a group of buildings in the New York City area known as "Wonder Theaters." Constructed in the waning years of the roaring 1920s, they embody the experience of the silver screen in their fantastical ornamental mash-ups, many of which incorporate Byzantine and Islamic motifs.»

Could I pick a favorite? One contender is Loew's 175th Street Theater in Manhattan (now United Palace Theater), which today operates as a church and music hall. I think the most apt description of its decoration would be "Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco"1. I love this video with interior shots and interviews with people who remember watching double features in the theater's velvet seats:

The City Concealed: United Palace Theater from Thirteen.org on Vimeo.

But I'm most impressed by the theater's facade, which features blind arches decorated with muqarnas, the quintessentially Islamic architectural features of stalactite vaulting.

United Palace Theater

Facade of the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights. Photograph by Joseph A. via Flickr

These are the only muqarnas I've seen in the wilds of New York City, and they remind me of the facade of my favorite building in Damascus, the twelfth-century Bimaristan (hospital) of Nur al-Din (see http://archnet.org/library/sites/one-site.jsp?site_id=7514 for site informaiton).

Bimaristan of Nur al-Din

Bimaristan of Nur al-Din, Damascus, Syria, built in the mid-12th century. Photograph: Betsy Williams

The marquee of another Wonder Theater, Loew's Kings on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, is painted with vegetal motifs that stopped me in my tracks.

Kings Theater 03

Kings Theater. Photograph by Scouting NY via Flickr

The curling forms of the facade's central arch remind me of the early Islamic-period mosaics in the Dome of the Rock and the Great Mosque of Damascus (see Annie's post on Damascus), here stacked and topped with a grinning face. Photos of the inside of the theater show details gorgeous in their decay (see http://afterthefinalcurtain.net/2011/04/01/loews-kings-theatre/ and http://www.scoutingny.com/?p=630). Thankfully, the theater is being painstakingly restored, with a reopening slated for 2013.

There are three other Wonder Palaces in the area, including Loew's Valencia on Jamaica Avenue in Jamaica, Queens; Loew's Paradise Theater, on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx; and Loew's Jersey Theater, in Jersey City. All feature similarly imaginative details recombined to evoke the "exotic." Obsolete even before construction was completed (they featured organs and stage curtains at a time when movies were past such fineries), many began to decline immediately after opening at the beginning of the Depression and especially during the tumultuous 1970s. Today, many of them welcome audiences once again as entertainment venues, movie theaters, and churches, a testament to the city's amazing capacity for creative re-use.

Have any of you been inside one of these theaters?

[1] David Dunlap, On Broadway: A Journey Uptown Over Time (New York, 1990)


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About the Author

Betsy Williams is a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and was the 2012 Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow in the Museum's Department of Islamic Art. Her dissertation is on precious-metal jewelry and notions of adornment in the Byzantine and early Islamic periods.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, on view March 14–July 8, 2012.