Once the site of movie premieres like “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” and “Strike Up the Band,” 42nd Street’s Times Square Theater has sat vacant for 30 years. But, finally, changes are coming to the venue.
The 98-year-old theater, which opened with Edgar Selwyn’s “The Mirage” in 1920, is getting a facelift, inside and out, with plans to reopen in 2021 as an experiential retail space with its original details — limestone columns, box seats, proscenium arch and plasterwork — preserved and on display.
The $100 million renovation by Beyer Blinder and Belle, Stillman Development International and The New 42nd Street Inc. will honor the theater’s long history, planners say.
“It’s yearning to be recognized,” said Cora Cahan, the president of The New 42nd Street, which is the theater’s landlord. “The celebration of its facade and the historic elements in the building will be so significant and will become iconic on this block.”
To begin the process, workers are extracting the original plasterwork, taking it to a warehouse and restoring it there before they reinstall it, according to Armen Boyajian, the vice president of Stillman.
Doing that frees the developers up to not only dig a basement but to hydraulically lift the building’s facade by 5 feet. This will create a “generous ground floor ceiling height” to showcase retail brands and put the original limestone columns on display inside a second-floor glass box that will cantilever over the sidewalk by 12 feet.
A new spiral staircase will be added to access the third and fourth floors and a new rooftop space for dining and retail is in the works, as well.
Essentially, the venue will become a white box or a blank canvas for a tenant to outfit it any way they like, Boyajian said.
The theater was never great for live performances, anyway, according to Cahan. It stopped being used that way in the 1930s.
“The dressing rooms are above the stage through steep and narrow passageways and the facade and orchestra sit parallel to 42nd Street, which has two-way traffic, and its cacophony,” she said. “There’s very little space for everything… given today’s requirements and standards of technical production.”
Cahan has been part of the project from the very start when the city and the state created The New 42nd Street nonprofit in 1990 to act as landlord and oversee the renovation of The Victory, Selwyn, Lyric, Liberty, Empire, Apollo and Times Square theaters.
She was its first employee and has seen every theater transform over her 28 years there. When she started in 1990, two stores, one of which was a pawn shop, shared the Times Square Theater, she said.
Although the theater will have a new purpose, Boyajian and Cahan said it is necessary to retain the original architectural details.
“These theaters made 42nd Street 42nd Street,” Cahan said. “To remember what was here and celebrate the past is exceedingly important. Stories were told in these theaters … and in Times Square Theater, it will be a new story.”