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Thread: Place of Escape May Survive, Behind Glass

  1. #1

    Default Place of Escape May Survive, Behind Glass

    February 25, 2004

    Place of Escape May Survive, Behind Glass


    The lobby of the RKO Keith's Flushing Theater.

    That palace of wonders, the RKO Keith's Flushing Theater in Queens, will never rise again. But there could still be a coming attraction: the amazing new curtain.

    Envision a 50-by-100-foot wall of undulating glass, appearing to float at the junction of Main Street and Northern Boulevard, just where the abandoned theater now squats. After dark, the glass curtain would showcase the ornate, landmark 1928 lobby of the Keith's.

    The $2 million glass wall is to enclose key elements of the ramshackle ruin of the theater, a once-grand Moorish fantasy that has been a civic eyesore for more than a decade. The curtain would be a gesture toward hallowed ground, where generations of Flushing residents had their school commencements, saw their first film as a child, went on their first date or stole their first kiss.

    The wall of glass is the planned cynosure of a $100 million mixed-use building to be called the RKO Plaza. It is to accommodate 250 condominium apartments and 260 parking spaces. There would be restaurants, retail stores and a senior center. And the building would incorporate the Keith's lobby and grand foyer.

    Of course, this structure could never be the original RKO Keith's. But in Flushing, out where the No. 7 subway line ends one stop beyond Shea Stadium, some say that the new development is preferable to the rotting tooth that the old theater has become.

    "It will put the crown back on Main Street,'' said Helen Marshall, the Queens borough president. "It will bring life to that area.''

    The Keith's, as everyone has called it forever, was bought in 2002 by Boymelgreen Developers after a 17-year dispute between the city and its previous owner, Thomas J. Huang, during which Mr. Huang admitted to letting 200 gallons of oil leak from the RKO's furnace and lying about having cleaned it up.

    Jay Valgora, the design principal of WalkerGroup, which has designed buildings in Bilbao, Spain; Santiago, Chile; Tokyo and New York, said engineering studies had found that the theater was "so devastated that little of it can be saved.'' WalkerGroup's V Studio division is the architect for RKO Plaza. T. William Kim, the RKO project developer for Boymelgreen, said the damaged building could no longer be economically viable as a theater. But, he said, "we hope to develop a trophy tower that references its historical past and evokes a sense of the theatrical.'' And so, Mr. Kim said, the building would have to be large enough to justify the expense of restoration.

    But on Monday night, after a spirited three-hour meeting, Community Board 7 voted 35-0 against the zoning variance that Boymelgreen is seeking, to accommodate 375,000 square feet of condominiums in a 19-story building.

    "When is large too big?" asked Chuck Apelian, chairman of the community board's landmarks committee. "We're worried that it will change the character of the neighborhood.''

    Board members and community residents peppered the developer's team with questions about the building's bulk. Some asked why no low- and middle-income housing had been included, while others wondered if the building couldn't be restored as a performing arts space.

    After the meeting, Councilman John C. Liu commented that "everyone wants this building to be built,'' but nevertheless praised the community board "for sending a message that no developer should expect a blank check as far as the size of a building, and the profit to be made.''

    "How the community board feels is important to us," Mr. Kim of Boymelgreen said, "but it is hard for us to placate everybody. So the process will move forward.''

    The community board's vote is not binding on the developer, and Boymelgreen will now submit the proposal for the final approval of the Board of Standards and Appeals, which can approve, deny or request amendments to the design. Construction could be completed as early as 2006.

    Mr. Valgora, the architect, said he sees the building as a dialogue between past and present, and his primary homage to the venerable theater is the new curtain of glass. "I hope its effect will be surreal,'' Mr. Valgora said, "to suggest the dreams that were the stuff of the original theater.''

    The 45,000-pound glass wall is to be fabricated in Madrid, and will be strung like a harp, entirely supported by a tracery of stainless steel cables.

    Behind it, there will be commercial spaces, a lobby accessible to the public, and restaurants and cafes. The angled building will offer its residents panoramic vistas of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Shea Stadium and the skyline of Manhattan.

    In addition to the incorporation of the Keith's two landmark rooms into the lobby, an exhibit will display as many of the theater's old details as can be saved.

    The current plan's design elements have already been reviewed by the City Planning Commission and approved by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. "The commission is very glad to see that this landmark will not only be restored but incorporated into the new building so it will be open and accessible," said Mark A. Silberman, the preservation commission's general counsel. "It is a great end to a sad and bizarre story.''

    The theater rose in 1928, the year after the advent of talking pictures, and was built for $750,000 by Thomas Lamb, a prolific theater architect who also designed the Cort, Strand and Rialto theaters in the city.

    With 2,974 seats, it was among the city's largest theaters and opened as a combination vaudeville and movie house under the name "Keith-Albee-Vaudeville,'' and was later renamed the RKO Keith's, for the Radio-Keith-Orpheum circuit. Audiences were treated to vaudeville shows and a feature film for 25 cents.

    According to architectural historians, as recently as the 1980's the Keith's was one of the few surviving examples of the uniquely American institution of the movie palace, rarer still for its design in the "atmospheric" style, aiming to produce an illusion of open outdoor space: a Moorish townscape in the overblown style of the Spanish architect José Churriguera. This fantasia of gilded plaster, Spanish-style murals, cut-glass chandeliers and polychromatic terra cotta had stage-set interior walls and skylike plaster ceilings.

    Sitting in the Keith's "was like having your own private palace,'' recalled Jerry Rotondi, acting head of the Committee to Save RKO Keith's Flushing Theater, a 24-year-old community group. He remembers back to the 1950's when electric bulbs in the blue ceiling traced the shapes of the constellations; moving clouds were projected to enhance the outdoor illusion.

    "If the movie was bad, it didn't matter," Mr. Rotondi said. "You could look at the theater.''

    But the Keith's was beset by changing theater economics following World War II, and finally succumbed to triplexation in the 1970's. Its fate was sealed in the era of Donald Manes, the Queens borough president who, facing a bribery and racketeering investigation, killed himself in 1986. Although the entire theater was proposed for landmark status in 1984, the Manes administration intervened so that only the lobby and grand foyer were to be preserved.

    After Mr. Huang bought the building, the lights went out on Labor Day in 1986. Before preservationists could intervene, the developer tore down part of the auditorium. After a decade of lawsuits, city inspectors found the oil leak. Even before he paid a $5,000 fine and was sentenced to probation in 1997, Mr. Huang put up a for-sale sign, but the historical baggage, and the theater's condition, scared away would-be buyers. "I used to take my children there, and it was out of this world,'' said Ms. Marshall, the borough president. "I can't tell you how sad it was to see that place all boarded up.''

    Inside, the theater is now a blasted ruin, a Sistine Chapel for connoisseurs of decay. The missing backstage wall exposes the auditorium to the elements. Peeling paint hangs in great sheets; ornamental plaster is shed into the void.

    Still in place are a few of the decorative brass railings, cast with leaping fish. Nearby, a few oil-painted murals survive in their niches, bearing blasted but still-visible depictions of quaint Spanish villages. In the lobby, though, the original mahogany ticket booth stands indomitably. "The theater was so well loved, it's still seen as the center of the neighborhood,'' said Mr. Rotondi, adding that despite its ruination "there is still a theater watch to this day - neighbors who keep an eye out looking for vandals or suspicious activity.''

    Even now, the old theater evokes powerful emotion. "I saw my first movie here,'' said Councilman Liu. "I was with my father and two younger brothers." On a recent afternoon, for the first time in two decades, he visited the hulk of a theater and gazed above the bones of the old orchestra pit to the forlorn original theater curtain - still there, depicting an orange and blue Spanish galleon breaking the waves.

    "My goodness,'' he said. "That's the curtain I saw as a child.''

    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

  2. #2
    Forum Veteran
    Join Date
    Jan 2003
    Garden City, LI


    I hate these people, really.

    This place is an eyesore in a prime location and this is a good development for the area. Flushing is being rezoned anyway.

    Hopefully, this, along with the DT BK and Atlantic Yards plans, among others, is another project to say "Thanks, but no thanks" to CB recommendations.

  3. #3


    My family immigrated to Flushing in 1989, I guess I was too late to watch movies at that theater. I do recall a fortress-like homeless shelter nearby (where, incidentally, I was once mugged as I was passing by). Ah, the memories.

  4. #4
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2002


    Kind of defeats its landmark status, no?

    Landmarked Flushing Theater Will Now Be Condos, Not Rentals

    April 15, 2014
    by Jessica Dailey

    Rendering of the redeveloped RKO Keith's

    A new owner means new plans for Flushing's landmarked RKO Keith's Theater. Plans to redevelopment the 85-year-old site by constructing a new residential building atop it have been in the works for more than seven years, and in December, JK Equities bought the site for $30 million. The original plan called for the 350 new units to be rentals, but Crain's reports that JK Equities will be making them condos. The new 17-story structure will rise above the historic theater, which will be incorporated into the building as the lobby. The development will have 23,000 square feet of retail as well as 385 parking spaces. During construction, a "protective shell" will be built over the 1928 structure to protect it, but permits are not yet in place, so work will not begin until next year.

    The theater in December 2012, via Google Streetview.

    Rentals out, condos in at RKO Keith's Theatre [Crain's]
    RKO Keith's coverage [Curbed]

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