- Historic Sites
III. They’re Still There
The great buildings of the 1920s are standing all over Manhattan, preserving in masonry the swank and swagger of an exuberant era.
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
The Varieties Theatre at Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street was built in 1914, and its marquee’s electric bulbs date from its construction. The neon overlay, however, is most likely the work of the 1920s: under the El every bit of light possible was deployed to inveigle customers into a distinctly non-first-run theater.
The Beacon on Broadway in the Seventies was something else again. Built for Roxy Rothafel and designed by Watter Ahlschlager, who was responsible for the Oriental, Spanish, rococo, you-name-ft splendors of the famous Roxy, its vast downtown progenitor, the smaller Beacon had twenty-seven hundred seats and enough decor for three theaters.
Years of neglect have darkened the frescoes on the theater’s walls, but you can still make out Greek and Egyptian slaves bearing riches. Who could have kept a straight face in the presence of this mad wealth of historical detail? The Beacon’s proscenium is flanked by huge Artec warriors who lift a symbolic tent flap. The entire effect was planned to make the audience feel that it was in an elaborate sheik’s tent that, when opened by these magical servants, would reveal a tale on an even more magical screen.
When the Bowery Savings Bank joined the rush to crowded midtown after World War I, it had to make do with the ground floor of an office building on Forty-second Street. But York and Sawyer were not defeated by the constraint; the architects produced, in 1923, a formidable Romanesque-Byzantine banking room whose sumptuous furnishings were as functional as they were decorative. All this splendor was in the service of a new style of banking based on speed and efficiency in taking care of a new clientele —those savers who stood in line at tellers’ windows with their deposit books in hand. The Bowery had moved to its uptown site because commuter trains, subways, and a Third Avenue El spur converged here, and with them two sources of customers: the old carriage trade that had begun to settle in the suburbs and workers drawn to the area’s new offices. Old money or fledgling money, the basilica-like banking room welcomed every depositor with a grandeur to match the grandest ambitions.