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Form Follows Two Unrelated Functions

The 1936 picture above is from Berenice Abbott’s “Changing New York” project and it shows, in a single building, some of those changes. When the picture was taken, that building, west of Sixth Avenue on 14th Street, had been the Civic Repertory Theater for ten years but hadn’t put on a show for two years because of the Great Depression. The theater was demolished in 1938 and the space used as a parking lot for a while; in 1951, the apartment house currently there was built.

The theater had been built in 1866 as the Theatre Francais, and then switched to English-language shows and renamed in 1871 as the Lyceum – a name that’s been attached to several New York theaters over the years. It became the Fourteenth Street theater and then a movie theater, and then the Civic Rep. It looked different in the 1870s:

The big front extension was a porte cochère back then, before the driving lanes of 14th Street were widened, forcing the removal of the outboard columns near the curb. The marquee that replaced it looks, and was, much less substantial. Meanwhile, the horrors of various theater fires – including the Brooklyn Theater fire in 1876 and the Iroquois Theater Firein 1903 (respectively, the third and first deadliest single-building fires in US history) – led to strict code provisions about egress. If you look closely at the Abbott picture, there’s a fire escape from the top of one of the top windows and apparently egress through the lower portion of one or more of the top windows, leading to fire stairs from the balcony to the marquee and then from the marquee down to the sidewalk.

The main part of the facade is a pretty normal classical-ish design, but the projecting balcony, pediment, and portes cochères reminded me of something that took a minute to pin down. With those elements, the facade looks very much like a scaenae frons, the decorative backdrop of a Roman theater. I can’t prove that’s what the architects had in mind, but it’s an obvious design trick to use. (The modernism fans who consider much of NYC architecture to be theatrical backdrops on a large scale are all nodding along with me.)

So take your pick of functions for the facade: recreating a 2000-year-old idea about theaters to put theater-goers in the mood, or serving as a way to distract passers-by from the reality of iron egress stairs.