From Gotham Lost & Found: Loew’s 7th Ave Theater

Posted from Gotham Lost & Found, the companion website to Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville by David Freeland

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One of the pitfalls of writing about history comes when you know something too well. Dates, events, and figures seep into the memory and, over time, become fixed. It’s easy to forget to reexamine the original source material, or to take another look at information you’ve long held as factual. As in life, what you hold closest to heart is sometimes the easiest to overlook.

For years I’ve carried around the belief that the former Loew’s Seventh Avenue Theater (now the Greater Refuge Temple), on the corner of 124th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem, is the oldest theatrical structure in Manhattan. But now I realize that I’ve never verified this through solid historical research. Here is what I know (or at least, what I believe I know): Loew’s Seventh Avenue was created around 1910 out of the shell of the old Manhattan Casino, a theatrical and entertainment complex that dated to the 1880s or 1890s (when this section of Harlem was a sedate middle-class enclave populated largely by German families). It remained in operation until the lean Depression years of the 1930s, and then eventually became a church.

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In the middle 1960s it was modernized with the colorful façade it bears today (visible in the right portion of the photo; sadly, the delicate building to the left has now been completely resurfaced for use as a Verizon store). It’s hard to know how much architectural detail remains hidden inside Greater Refuge Temple today, as the auditorium is dominated by a pod-like ceiling that looks like something from a 1960s science fiction movie. However, if you walk around to the 124th Street side of the building, you’ll see a small remnant of the original Manhattan Casino structure. It rises like a tower alongside the decorative building next door.

So, if we use the original Manhattan Casino construction date as a starting point, is the former theater at 125th and Seventh Avenue truly the oldest in Manhattan? Are there any structures which might have been used as theaters that can be said to predate it? What other details can be uncovered to flesh out its history? This week I hope to find out.

7 thoughts on “From Gotham Lost & Found: Loew’s 7th Ave Theater

  1. My grandfather worked for Horn and Hardart as a printer back in the l950′s and they threw a Xmas party for the children of their “colored” employees at Rockland Palace every year that my sister and I attended. I have fond memories indeed of Rockland Palace….

  2. Dear Adrian,

    Thanks for this note. I am very sorry to hear about the Flash Inn. That is a really special place that will be going. Inside there is a photo of a woman I interviewed for the book, Anise Boyer. She was a former Cotton Club star dancer. Also interesting to read about the Rockland Palace. Do you happen to know if anyone has any photos of it? I’ve never been able to find any.

    Thanks also for the building recommendation. As it happens I am in the process of moving to Washington Heights and have been looking for a great building there to profile. So I will plan to do some research and make the building you suggest my next blog entry. It may be the same place that a colleague of mine, Tom Rinaldi of Columbia University’s preservation program, wrote about in a recent paper – I’ll check!

    Best regards,
    David

  3. Hi. Happy New Year. Ive been surfing trying to find information on a building on Wadsworth Av. between 180 & 181 St. and I found you. The building appears to be an old movie theater or a vaudeville house. On the facade are several “gargoyles” with different facial expressions. The building also has an imprint of a marquee. It is now a clothing store. Please check this building out. It is totally amazing! Regarding the comment above from David, yes the Rockland Palace stood until the 1970′s. Its last tenant was an Roller Skating Rink. Many shootings and rowdy folks caused the Rockland Palace to die. Soon after it burned to the ground. Now there is a parking lot where it stood. We recently lost another treasure in Harlem at 155 St & 7th Ave. Tony Merandas Flash Inn. Sign says 72 years we are retiring. Thanks for your site. Will check in again soon. Adrian

  4. Dear Native New Yorker,

    Thanks for the comment. I am so happy that you mentioned the Rockland Palace, because I have always been intrigued by that establishment. Going through old copies of the Inter-State Tattler and other Harlem periodicals from the 1920s and 30s, I saw numerous announcements for the shows held there, including the era’s famously lavish drag balls. I also think it’s interesting that the Rockland stayed in operation through the 1960s. I’ve known rhythm and blues performers who have recalled doing shows there during the soul era. I remember feeling disappointed when I went to visit the site and realized that the building was no longer standing.

    In the initial post, I was confusing “Manhattan Casino” with “Harlem Casino,” and fixed it shortly thereafter. The building at 124th Street and 7th Avenue was once known as the Harlem Casino. Actually, if you go back to the http://www.gothamlostandfound.com site, you’ll see that I was able to uncover more details. The building’s early history was quite troubled, and for years the foundation had been built and nothing more. If you know anything else (about the Harlem Casino or the Rockland) I’d love to hear it!

    Best,
    David

  5. Although you have roughly the correct dates, The Manhattan Casino and Park, later to become the Rockland Palace and site of the “frolic of the Frogs”, the birth of the Lindy Hop and many many more firsts, was at 280 West 155th Street, in the shadow of the Polo Grounds. The site is now a parking lot. I will get back to you on the name of this theater once I have access to research

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