United Palace Theater

Putting this piece together, I often found myself trying to describe the United Palace Theater to people who had never seen it. “It’s sort of Neo-Classical Cambodian, with influences of Hindu, Mayan, and Moorish architecture. Gilded and covered in red velvet.” I sounded ridiculous, but my description isn’t that far off the mark.

The United Palace is a fantasy, an architect’s dream of excess, embellishment, and more and more gold paint: a Greek goddess presides over a hall lined with meditating Buddhas, Indian ascetics share the wall with fat Renaissance cherubs. Nothing really makes sense here, but it all comes together completely, courtesy of Thomas W. Lamb.

Lamb was the preeminent theater architect for the first half of the 20th century. And while I’m no expert on his work, in researching this story I was fascinated by the way his buildings developed over time. In the 1910s when theaters were devoted to vaudeville and in need of legitimacy, Lamb designed buildings that were respectable Greek temples. In the first part of 1920s, art deco predominates. But I think it’s in the second half of the 1920s that Lamb comes into his own. Hollywood is entering its Golden Age and is proving to the world that any dream can be manufactured for the screen. Lamb’s challenge is to design theaters grand enough to contain those dreams, and he needs to borrow from every conceivable architectural style in order to do so. Historians call it the “Movie Palace Era,” and really these are palaces that Lamb is designing, buildings dedicated to the glamor of Hollywood and the prosperity of America right before the Great Depression.

But the United Palace was the last of Lamb’s movie palaces. Once the Depression set in, Neo-Classical Cambodian theaters were no longer practical. Part of me wonders what Lamb would have come up with had he been able to continue designing theaters unencumbered by the harsh economic reality of the 1930s. But maybe its the brevity of the Movie Palace Era that makes buildings like the United Palace so special.

Still, going uptown to shoot this piece, I learned that the United Palace is not an artifact from some other time. It’s very much a living, breathing community center that evolves as Washington Heights evolves. Go there. Take the A train to 175th street. You’ll see a past and a present coming together in a way that happens less and less in today’s New York City.

— Josh Cohen, Producer