Archtober Building of the Day #1
The Public Theater at Astor Place
425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY
Many “Building of the Day” tours demonstrate the vibrancy of New York City, as it manifests itself in public spaces, public buildings, and, today, in the Public Theater. Theater shows us who we are, and the Public Theater has presented a balanced mix of Shakespeare, classics, musicals, contemporary works, and experimental. The lobby is filled with words, and immediately my head is filled with quotes from the Bard: “What do you read, my lord,” and Hamlet replies: ”Words, words, words.” So we kick off with some good words about the public, the theater, and the splendid blend of history and aspiration that brings them all together.
Ennead Associate Partner Stephen Cho, led the tour today, developing the history of this sturdy antebellum structure. Originally built in 1853 as the Astor Library, it grew until the 1895 consolidation with the Lenox and Tilden Libraries formed the New York Public Library. The original architect was Alexander Saeltzer, with additions by Thomas Stent. Abandoned by the NYPL in 1911, the structures were repurposed for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1920. The Astor Library became a residence, a half-way house, a kosher cafeteria, and an advocacy organization for the displaced Jews of the early 20th century.
By 1965, the building had deteriorated considerably and faced certain demolition. One of the first successful “saves” of the newly-created Landmarks Preservation Commission, the city purchased the building, gave it landmark status and leased it to Joe Papp, who had already established his vision of promoting Shakespeare to the masses. Ada Louise Huxtable called it “the miracle on Lafayette Street.”
Ennead began its involvement with the renovation of the lobby and public outdoor space. Taking cues from the historic building, a new stoop was added by gobbling up a lane of Lafayette Street. A glass canopy was also added. Paula Sher of Pentagram had a hand in some of the words, and artist Ben Rubin created The Shakespeare Machine as a site-specific light fixture with 37 LED screens that displays fragments of Shakespeare’s plays.
This was a great project to kick off the month of architecture. It has everything – an august beginning as an institution for learning, a historic transformation reflecting the changing nature of the neighborhood, and its chapter as a hub of theaters exploring all those themes and more. Stay tuned for 30 more…tomorrow we tour 250 Bowery by Morris Adjmi Architects at high noon.