Sunday, May 20, 2012

New York City Center

New York City Center, on W. 55th Street between Sixth & Seventh Avenues, was built in 1923 as a meeting hall for the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine – commonly known as the Shriners. An appendant organization of Freemasonry, the Shriners were established in 1870 by two Masons living in Manhattan who set out to found a fraternity based on fun, fellowship and the Masonic principles of brotherly love, relief and truth. They chose an exotic Middle Eastern theme, logo and uniform and called their meeting places mosques. There was no other interior in the city that was anything like the Shriner’s temple (a block south of Carnegie Hall), with its colorful filigree, gilding, desert murals and exotic light fixtures of Arabic design. Imagine 2,750 men inside the main hall, each wearing a wine-red fez – a cylindrical flat-topped hat with a tassel. Above their heads was an enormous terra cotta tiled dome on the roof, covered with 28,000 individual tiles (photo at end of post). The main auditorium and three Masonic lodge rooms boasted a total of four pipe organs.

Unfortunately, a scant 15 years after building this magnificent meeting hall, the Shriners couldn’t pay their taxes during the Depression, and the City of New York ended up owning it. It was decided to recycle the Shriners’ “Mecca Temple” as a performance space, and at the grand re-opening on December 11, 1943, NYC Mayor Fiorello La Guardia conducted the New York Philharmonic in the national anthem. They painted over the elaborate colors of the ceilings and walls in plain white, for easier maintenance, and the facility gradually grew dingy and faded over the passing decades (see photo). Nevertheless, revivals of musicals and dance performances were regularly presented on its stage. The New York City Opera was in residence here until it moved to Lincoln Center in the 1960s. It was just announced this week that they’re moving back, having abandoned Lincoln Center’s State Theater for budgetary reasons. New York City Center, as the former Shriner temple is now called, reopened in October, 2011, after undergoing a $57 million renovation.

The two-year project corrected some of the glaring faults of the old hall. The lobby and lounges were expanded, 500 seats were removed to provide wider seats and more leg room, and restroom capacity was increased by 50%. Perhaps most significantly, the poor sight lines from many of the former seats were eliminated, and the slope of the rows of seats was increased. The mosaic walls and arabesque ceilings have been resplendently refreshed and restored to their original colors. Have a look:


Richard Murray said...

Really nice blog, thank you. I sang at a bunch of these coffee houses in 1964. There were a few others like the cafes Radio, Bizarre, & The Four Winds also. Great memory tour.

Richard Murray said...

That was cafe rafio, correct sucks!