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The City Concealed
The City Concealed, an online video series exploring the unseen corners of New York. Visit the places you don’t know exist, locations you can’t get into, or maybe don’t even want to. Each installment unearths New York’s rich history in the city’s hidden remains and overlooked spaces.

United Palace Theater

[vimeo id="4243925" width="640" height="360"]

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

  • comments (24)
  • Carl

    Actually, in the early twenties, Lamb’s theatres were very classical (inspired by the work of the Adam brothers of 18th century England), not art deco. I’m not sure if Lamb designed many, if any, art deco theatres. Also, the last movie palace Lamb designed was not the United Palace, it was Loew’s 72nd Street Theatre, which opened in 1932.

  • Sylvia Ross

    Whatever happened to the movie theatre on the Grand Concourse near Fordham Road, ( I believe it was also named the Palace Theatre (?). No longer there?Lovd reading about the long ago old times. SR.Thanks.

  • David Thompson

    Fantastic report. This truly is a movie palace.

  • Harvey Silverman

    The movie palace on the Grand Concourse (now celebrating it’s 100th birthday) is the former Loew’s Paradise which having gone through several incarnacions is now an arts and community events venue. You can google it and learn more.

  • Ronald Levao

    The theater is a treat to visit and revisit. There are many places that strike one as so quirky and playfully excessive that silliness and sublimity meet–Portmeireon in Wales (used as the Prisoner’s “Village” in the cult TV show), Marta Becket’s Amargosa Opera House (a cultural microcosm created in a ghost town just outside Death Valley). This theater doesn’t have the encroaching desert to contend with, but it does have city real estate values and developers to fight off, and its survival is something the city can celebrate.

  • Harlem Bespoke

    Thank you for the reminding us of what the city might still have if we choose to support the restoration and adaptive reuse of these one of a kind buildings. Although further north, the grand buildings of Washington Heights have many similarities to that of Harlem proper.
    -harlembespoke.blogspot.com

  • Hermione

    Long live Levao!

  • Carol O’Keefe

    I am sure I went to this theater for Saturday matinees as a child in the late 40′s and early 50′s. We would travel from Inwood on the bus or subway and have to walk home because we spent our carfare on candy.It seemed the whole city was safe in those days. Does anyone know if this theater was ever owned by RKO or Loew’s

  • Ronald Levao

    Carol, It was a Loew’s theater. There was also a large, ornate, but less elaborate theater about 6 blocks north (181st st. I believe) that was an RKO theater, and I think it still stands, but the theater is divided in two. You can find websites for both of them with great photos.

  • ROZKAHN

    5THE THEARER AY FORDHAM ROAD IN THE BRRONX WAS ON THE GRAND CONCOURSE. IT WAS CALLES ‘THE PARADISE ‘ AND WAS SIMILAR TO TO’THE PARAMOUNT THEATER’ IN TIMES SQUARE’ WHERE FSINATRA HAD KIDS STANDING ON LINE FOR HOURS TO GET IN TO HEAR HIM 1 ( KIDS BEING TEEN AGERS)

  • david

    wow i live 2 blocks away and i never been inside and i have seen it growing up for 23 years now i wish they could use it for something better than what they using it for now

  • Mark Bender

    What a treat! I was in the theater about twenty years ago while working with the City regarding the restoration of The Loew’s Kings in Brooklyn. The theater still stands,abandoned, awaiting funding.

  • hailey

    Levao, my favorite profesor!!! yeah^____^”

  • Carol O’Keefe

    Thanks Levao. Guess I was actually thinking of the RKO on 181st Street. I also used to go to the Loew’s on the Grand Concourse. Saturdays and 25Cents for the movie and a nickel for candy. What more could a child ask for

  • Antoinette

    So interesting—I had no idea that either of these islands existed. And I love the shot of the plane flying out of the sky and the bird flying into it.

    PS great job to all who worked on the piece.

  • Jonathan

    First … Thanks to Rev. Ike and all for maintaiing such a beauty. As kids in the 1950′s this theatre was a regular visit. Wonderful movies .. Lawrence of Arabia (I saw 4 times here), Forbidden Planet – ooodles of the Dracula and mummy movies … the SAME matron who gave us continual grief – they were all wonderful.

  • Ron Levao

    Rev. Ike died last night–made his transition, his website says. His is a story that can be told many ways; I do hope that his successors, or those who buy the building, continue the real-world effort to maintaining this architectural fantasy.

  • Carol Scott

    Wish I knew that place was there when I visited the US. This is what I like to see. Wonderful place. I live in Clevedon, N Somerset, Uk and we have one of the oldest running cinemas in the World which I still use. Sorry to see the comment about Rev Ike, hope the place keeps going. Carol

  • Antonia

    It is precioso and big, I did not know that it was so beatiful, Perfect to preach to God

  • Brti Ray, nee Carol Marron

    Thank you, Ronald and Richard, for this wonderful video. It’s so great to see the old Loews theater where I spent so many hours of my childhood and teen years in the late 40s and early 50s. It’s even more palatial than I remember. I lived at 138 Haven Avenue on 173rd, so Loews was very close – but often we went to that other great movie palace, the Coleseum at 181st. There were small theaters around, too. One at 168th – and a string of about three further east on 181st. One day soon I’m going to visit the old neighborhood and see P.S. 173, and Jr. High 115, and Jay Hood Wright Park – that it turns out my husband’s late father designed along with much of Central Park and Riverside Drive. And I’ll revisit Castle Village and Hudson View Gardens (where we wished we could live) and stroll down the winding pathways lined with stone walls to the Hudson River, where I’ll say hello to the Little Red Light House and gaze up at the splendor of the George Washington Bridge. I always feel so fortunate to have grown up in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in New York City – and maybe in all the world.

  • Rich Levao

    Brti,
    It was a hoot (and more) revisiting this old palace of dreams. Ron and I also attended P. S. 173 but we left NYC before starting Jr. High at PS 115. If you haven’t already seen it, you might be interested in the documentary film “Mad Hot Ballroom”, about dance competitions (and so much more, of course) among several NYC schools, including PS 115. A number of interior shots of the school is featured and it may bring back more memories. I know the film is available from Netflix.

    Rich Levao

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  • MaPol

    What a beautiful-looking theatre the United Palace Theatre is, both inside AND out!
    Too bad there aren’t more like it here in the United States, generally. Just one question, however: Is it up to code?