Heads up, history buffs! It’s time to tap into a treasure trove of glimpses of New York’s past — and unsurprisingly, Broadway takes a starring role.
After 55 years under wraps, the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s digital photo archive of 35mm, black-and-white and color film negatives, slides, darkroom prints and digital shots is now accessible to the public. The archive allows users to easily search and explore high-resolution images of designated buildings and sites throughout the five boroughs, complete with extensive architectural and historical information on each location.
“Making LPC’s work more accessible, transparent and efficient is essential to our success and has been a priority throughout my tenure,” said Landmarks Preservation Commission Chair Sarah Carroll in a press release. “The LPC Designation Photo Collection will not only allow the public to have a greater understanding and appreciation of New York City’s designated buildings and neighborhoods, but it will serve as a resource for applicants as they prepare their permit applications, which will help streamline the process.”
W42ST took a peek into the archives to locate some of our favorite Midtown landmarks — Broadway theaters. The performance venues, many of which date back centuries, became landmarks in the 1980s after the economic decay of the 1970s walloped Times Square. Desperate to save the Main Stem’s historic spaces from becoming pornography theaters, Fred Papert (who had in part founded Theater Row) and other local advocates began building a plan called “The City at 42nd Street” to install retail shops and amusements (a Ferris Wheel was floated!) and to preserve the theaters of Midtown.
Beginning with the New Amsterdam Theatre, the group started by Papert — backed by $600,000 from the Ford Foundation and eventually funded by the Koch administration and the Urban Development Corporation — designated the buildings as landmarks. By 1982 — after passionate campaigns by the Actors Equity Association and prominent performers like Tony Randall, Liza Minelli, Joseph Papp, Colleen Dewhurst and Christopher Reeve — zoning amendments passed, declaring a two-year moratorium on demolishing Broadway theaters and giving preservationists time to designate each theatre as protected. By 1987, 25 theaters had been cemented as landmarks, and despite pushback (and lawsuits) from the Shubert and Nederlander organizations citing the designations as detrimental to their future business, the objections were overturned and the buildings remained protected.
While the buildings have been preserved, the names and marquees of many of Broadway’s historic houses have changed over the years. The Neil Simon Theatre, renamed from The Alvin in 1983 (Simon was the first living playwright to be honored with the designation) was home to the original run of the smash-hit musical Annie, pictured here from the Landmark Commission’s archive in 1979.
Some archival photos show forgotten theater names and shows. The Richard Rodgers Theatre — home to the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning Hamilton — was once the more generically named 46th Street Theatre, showing the decidedly less flashy whodunit Arsenic and Old Lace in 1986. It was renamed to honor composer Rodgers in 1990. At the Little Theater (now the Hayes Theater) in 1978, the Sherlock Holmes-themed Crucifer of Blood ran for 236 performances and was nominated for four Tony Awards. The Hollywood Theatre (now the Times Square Church) was captured in 1979 while playing the musical revue and Mickey Rooney vehicle Sugar Babies.
Some theaters captured have only partially survived. Henry Miller’s Theatre, which originally opened in 1918 was completely demolished, and a new theatre constructed in its place under a Durst-built high-rise — much of the Sondheim Theatre auditorium is below street level. All that remains of Henry Miller’s Theatre is the facade, which was retained, propping it up after the theater was demolished. Today, there are bits and pieces of detail from Henry Miller’s stuck on walls here and there inside the Sondheim.
The Cort Theatre is one of the latest venues renamed, rebranded this year to honor legendary actor James Earl Jones.
Other venues frozen in time bear the same nomenclature and a snapshot of shows past. The Broadhurst Theatre was home to Ian McKellen and Tim Curry in Amadeus from 1980 to 1983, while the Majestic Theatre — playing the longest-running Broadway musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera since 1988 — showcased those dancing feet in the tap-tastic backstage musical 42nd Street from 1981 to 1987 before the production moved to the St James Theatre in 1987 (it had first run in 1980 at the Winter Garden Theatre). And though the Shubert Theatre’s famous rotund corner-facade is instantly recognizable in archive photos, its longest-running tenant — A Chorus Line — played W44th Street for 15 years and 6,137 performances.
And some, like the first-preserved New Amsterdam Theatre, were captured in a strange, transitory time — as pictured by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the theater was between its period as home of the Ziegfeld Follies and the future home of the Disney mega-musical, serving as a movie house until 1983.
More THEATER News
The Landmarks Preservation Commission is holding a web-based tutorial on navigating their digital archive on September 20 at 6pm. Registration details can be found here. And if you just want to go ahead and explore, the archive can be accessed here.