West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 6 | July 11 - 17, 2007

A curtain (of netting) comes down on historic theater

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

A young girl passed the cornerstone of the old theater, which commemorates the date of its construction in both English and Hebrew lettering. And right: In late May, without a permit, netting was bolted to the facade of Village East Cinemas, the former Yiddish Art Theatre.

By Lucas Mann

In late May, along with a new crop of movie titles on the marquee, something foreign appeared on the facade of the Village East Cinemas. Netting attached to the building’s exterior, held in place by metal bolts, was a giant red flag to longtime neighbors of the theater.

“The building has been individually landmarked by the city,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “It has been deemed an important enough cultural landmark to be preserved on its own. The work seems to be entirely without permit and is doing damage to the facade. It also seems to be preparing for more work. The netting is the kind commonly used in preparation for the application of Dry-Vit, a form of fake stucco.”

When not covered in netting, the facade of the theater at 12th St. and Second Ave. is indeed a cultural relic, speaking to a time when the avenue was known as the “Yiddish Rialto.” Formerly the Yiddish Art Theatre, it was built between 1925 and 1926 and its look reflects, as Berman put it, “A Moorish, Byzantine style that is deeply evocative of a Yiddish identity.”

Neighbors of the theater share Berman’s feelings about the cultural importance of the building, which is an exterior landmark, as well as an interior landmark, which is more rare.

“We celebrated the landmarking of this last, intact vestige of the thriving Yiddish theater that blossomed at the turn of the last century on Second Ave. below 14th St.,” said Marilyn Appleberg, president of the 10th and Stuyvesant Sts. Block Association. “Nothing else remains of this vibrant cultural era.”

The 2nd Ave. Deli, perhaps the most famous landmark from the old “Yiddish Rialto,” closed down earlier this year. Only its “Walk of Yiddish Stars,” left on the sidewalk by Chase bank, which now owns the property, remains to commemorate the cultural history of the strip, where the likes of Jessica Tandy, Farley Granger and Eli Wallach once ruled the stages. Always the area’s premier Yiddish performance venue, the former Yiddish Art Theatre is now the sole surviving theater building.

The neighbors, along with G.V.S.H.P., enacted their defense quickly, calling both the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Buildings by early June. Because the construction was very visible, worried residents did not react immediately, since they thought the owners must have had nothing to hide to be so indiscreet. Yet, it turned out to be otherwise.

“The violation was so blatant that at first we assumed that it must have been permitted and was for some kind of restoration,” Berman said.

Both L.P.C. and D.O.B. investigated and concluded that the exterior work on the old theater was both not for restoration and not legal.

“The net was installed without a permit,” said Lisi de Bourbon, an L.P.C. spokesperson. “We have already sent a letter to the owner saying that the work must stop. Now they have to come get a permit for the netting and other work and if they fail to do so we can take other actions, such as a notice of violation and an eventual fine.”

D.O.B. has already gone one step further.

Said Carly Sullivan, a department spokesperson: “We’ve inspected the site and are in the process of administering a violation that will go on the company’s record.”

The owner of the former Yiddish theater is City Cinemas, a division of Reading International Inc., a chain that owns three other theaters in New York City, including the Angelika Film Center at Houston and Mercer Sts.

Robert Smerling, president of domestic theaters for Reading International, was curt when asked about the erection of the netting and the possible violations. He declined comment on the company’s further plans or on their dialogue with L.P.C., other than to say, “We deal with our properties the way we have to and we are respectful of the Landmarks Commission.”

As of now, work has stopped on the theater’s exterior, but the netting remains. Berman is happy about the swift halt in construction, but is still suspicious of City Cinemas’ answer relayed to him by Landmarks.

“They say an engineer had inspected the facade and determined that it was not safe and secure and that’s why they installed the netting,” Berman said. “This seems a little odd, since bolting into stone seems like it would only cause more damage and make it more unstable. At the very least, we want L.P.C. to issue violations for the inappropriate bolting, get them to correct it if possible, and confirm what the safety hazard is.”

There is no confirmation yet if there is indeed a safety hazard, and the possibility of stucco application is mere speculation. Still, the vigilance of G.V.S.H.P., while clearly a nuisance to City Cinemas, is a welcome relief for Marilyn Appleberg and her block association, one of whose main priorities is the preservation of their historic surroundings.

“This is an issue of importance to many of the residents of the community of the Yiddish Art Theatre,” Appleberg said. “It is imperative that the landmarked theater be preserved and respected. Thankfully, we have organizations like G.V.S.H.P. to insure that it is.”

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