On a recent sunny Wednesday afternoon, I took the A train uptown to 175th Street to visit the United Palace Theatre. As I emerged from the subway station, the melodies of Spanish-language music coming from a car radio welcomed me to Washington Heights, a neighborhood so identified with its substantial Dominican population that it’s sometimes referred to as “Quisqueya Heights.”
Looking east across Broadway, the United Palace Theatre rises dramatically from the ground. Its structure is imposing, seven stories high, occupying an entire city block, stretching from 175th to 176th Street and from Broadway to Wadsworth Avenue. And its ornate façade would probably seem quite enigmatic to the ordinary passerby. Unless, of course, he or she happened to be an art historian who might identify the blind arches comprised of niche-like elements arranged in tiers as muqarnas (the Arabic word for stalactite vaulting). With a little research, I found that this ornamental motif is prominent in Islamic architectural traditions, with examples found in Granada, Baghdad, and Damascus. But even if you can’t identify the specific architectural details, their exotic appearance conjures images of far-away lands and suggests that the theater is not merely a venue for events; a visit to the United Palace Theatre is an event in itself.
The United Palace Theatre, originally referred to as the Loew’s 175th Street Theatre, was built as part of a series of five “Wonder Theatres.” The Wonder Theatres, erected between 1925 and 1930 in the New York City area, were so named because each featured a Morton Wonder Organ. The United Palace Theatre was the last one of the series to be built, and opened its doors in 1930. In 1969, the United Christian Evangelistic Association, under the jurisdiction of Reverend Frederick Eikerenkoetter, better known as “REV. IKE,” purchased the building. The theater was restored and now serves as a church, a cultural center, and a venue for performances. Though not clearly visible from street level, a blue dome with beautiful stained glass windows sits at the top of the structure. Similar to a cake, a 23-foot candle proudly stands at the center of the dome, topped by a cross.
Between two sweeping doors, a ticket booth supported by a marble base marks the main entrance. Above it, a sign reads, “Come in or smile as you pass.” When I visited, however, this entrance was closed, so I entered through a door on the left hand side of the building. From a small corridor, where I met my guide, I stepped onto the foot of the stage. A light switch was turned on, and light poured into the auditorium, exposing the grandiose majesty of the theater. Gilded walls and ceilings with intricate ornamentation surround the interior space, and plush, crimson chairs offer a welcoming seat to the visitor. The full magic of the building is in its details. Every corner has an image. Lions crouch at the base of pillars; birds, floral motifs, and mythical beings decorate the shaft and capital, and gargoyles protrude from above with a certain theatricality. They all increase the sensation that the ornamentation, as the building itself, is part of the show.
From the stage, I proceeded into the hallway. Lamps dangle from the ceiling, illuminating the large gold columns. Mirrors line the walls and a long red carpet sweeps across the floor and down the staircase into the lobby. Inside the lobby, large posters hang within blinded arches proclaiming, “When you discover who you are, it doesn’t matter what you’ve been. – Rev. Ike.” As in the auditorium, there are images everywhere. In one corner, a Buddha sits meditating. At the foot of the staircase, statues of elephants stand on the railing, with their trunks raised high to the ceiling. Perhaps one of the more elusive sculptures is of a woman standing on a balcony, along the western wall, with a flag raised in her right hand. The guide informed me that she is Joan of Arc.
Assigning any single architectural style to the theater is difficult. It appears to be an agglomeration of several styles. The AIA Guide to New York City describes the theater as “Cambodian Neo-Classical.” David W. Dunlap, author of On Broadway: A Journey Uptown Over Time describes it as “Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco.” Though the description verges on ridiculous, it is in keeping with the intricate and hybrid decorative schemes of the theater’s architect, Thomas W. Lamb. A leading architect of theaters during the first half of the 20th century, Lamb was responsible for the design and construction of numerous movie palaces across the country. More than just cinemas, these were to be lavish palaces intended to evoke the golden age of Hollywood.
As I left, a poster hanging on the wall caught my eye, advertising an upcoming musical called Perfume De Gardenia. The United Palace Theatre hosts a variety of musical performances, ranging from classical to contemporary. In past years, performers have included Neil Young, Sonic Youth, Bob Dylan, and the Allman Brothers Band. Outside the confines of the theater, the music of Washington Heights rings in the air. At the corner of 175th Street and Broadway, customers crowd around a vendor selling ice cream from a small cart; others stream in and out of El Malacon, the popular pan-Caribbean restaurant on the opposite corner. Further down the street stands a beauty salon; Omnibus La Cubana, a bus operator; and Librería Comunitaria, a community bookshop. The theater isn’t the only place in this vibrant neighborhood worth exploring.