Loew's Victoria on West 125th Street
Lacar for The Times
For years, the Loew's Victoria Theater, a once-elegant
vaudeville house and movie palace, has languished on West
125th Street in Harlem.
Just a few doors down from its famous neighbor
the Apollo Theater, the Victoria went from being celebrated
as one of the city's largest and most beautiful theaters to
failing as a five-screen multiplex that opened in 1987 and
closed just two years later. Since then, the theater's Ionic
columns and terra-cotta rosettes have decayed and the stage
has remained bare, except for occasional small theatrical
productions or church services. The marquee recently advertised
a lingerie sale across the street.
Now, seven teams of developers, hoteliers and
cultural organizations are competing to reimagine the site
as a major new entertainment-hotel-residential complex. New
York State, which owns the property, is interviewing the applicants
and expects to make a decision in March.
& Fowle Architects
by RD Management
The Empire State Development Corporation, which
is evaluating the proposals with the Harlem Community Development
Corporation, its subsidiary, declined to identify the applicants
or describe their proposals.
But documents obtained by The New York Times
show that the state has narrowed the field to seven groups.
Under terms set by the state, each team has enlisted an arts
organization as part of its proposal, like the Bottom Line,
the jazz club that recently closed in Greenwich Village; or
the Jazz Museum in Harlem, which has yet to find a home. The
development teams include hoteliers like Starwood and Ian
Schrager; architects like Fox & Fowle, Davis Brody Bond
and Lee Harris Pomeroy; and developers like Related Companies
and Apollo Real Estate Advisers, which together built the
Time Warner Center.
"This is a great opportunity for Harlem
and more specifically for 125th Street as it inches toward
becoming an even grander destination," said Derek Q.
Johnson, chairman of Integrated Holdings, which has partnered
But development projects involving historic
buildings are often magnets for controversy, and the Victoria
is no exception. While the theater has been deemed eligible
for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, it
is not a designated landmark - and the state is not requiring
that the neo-Classical theater, with its ornate moldings and
ceilings, be preserved.
"That is effectively a smack in the face
to the community," said City Councilman Bill Perkins,
who represents parts of Harlem. "There is going to be
a little bit of a fight on this, I can guarantee you."
"That's a historic theater, and we'd like
to see proposals recognize that," he continued. "The
preservation issue is compatible with the development issue."
At a meeting on Friday of the Harlem Community
Development Corporation, the issue of preservation was addressed.
While all of the proposals would involve retaining the facade,
only two specify restoring some interior features. Michael
Henry Adams, the Harlem historian and author of "Harlem:
Lost and Found" (Monacelli Press, 2002), said he found
this troubling. "Whatever happens, I would like it to
incorporate the beautiful interiors of this historic Harlem
theater," he said.
Harris Pomeroy, Roberta Washington Architects
by Victoria Tower Development
In particular, Mr. Adams cited the elliptical
anteroom on the second floor, the bas-relief decoration on
the theater's saucer dome ceiling, the long mirrored lobby
and the theater's gilded bronze and crystal chandeliers.
The 2,394-seat Victoria was designed in 1917
by Thomas W. Lamb, who built dozens of Loew's theaters around
the world and several Broadway houses. "It should not
be allowed to be destroyed," Mr. Adams said. "Were
it restored, it would be one of the most distinguished theaters
in New York."
Over the last few years, Harlem has seen an
explosion of commercial development, from a new Marriott Hotel
to Harlem U.S.A., a retail center, both on 125th Street. Developers
say there is still a demand for more hotel rooms as well for
apartments to accommodate professionals. But some people who
live and work in Harlem are concerned that the influx in large-scale
development will compromise the neighborhood's character and
displace longtime residents.
Mr. Perkins argues that the Victoria development
project - indeed, the overall influx of commercial building
in Harlem - should not be mistaken for a larger revival. "These
days, 'renaissance' is defined by real estate," he said.
"It's not a term to describe an intellectual, cultural,
"What these people want us to do is be
grateful that deals are being made," he said. "The
easy way out is to tear something down and put something up."
Tensions are also brewing between the two agencies
responsible for choosing a development plan for the site.
Keith L. T. Wright, chairman of the Harlem Community Development
Corporation, said his organization had been excluded from
decision-making by the Empire State Development Corporation.
"There has been no consultation whatsoever," said
Mr. Wright, also a state assemblyman whose district includes
Harlem. "It's plantationism at its best."
"This is the last big development piece
on 125th Street," he said. "I just want to make
sure some of my community groups are taken care of. They want
a piece of the action."
But Deborah Wetzel, a spokeswoman for the Empire
State Development Corporation, said that the Harlem Community
Development Corporation had been fully consulted. "We've
been working very closely with them," she said. "We're
assisting them every step of the way; they sit in on every
meeting and their board has final approval." The Harlem
Urban Development Corporation, a precursor of the community
development corporation, acquired the Apollo and the Victoria
in the mid-1980's to save them from conversion to nontheater
Two of the proposals feature the Jazz Museum,
which was founded four years ago to present exhibitions and
further jazz education.
The proposal submitted by the RD Management
Corporation, a real estate investment and development company,
calls the Jazz Museum "the jewel in the crown" of
its $116 million multi-use development. The proposal plans
to retain the theater's façade with a new marquee and
overall design by Fox & Fowle Architects.
Taking a page from the new Jazz at Lincoln Center
building at Columbus Circle, which - in addition to its main
stage - includes a jazz club and a theater with a glass wall
overlooking Central Park South, the proposal calls for a "jazz
cafe" on the second floor for small ensembles. A bandstand
would be framed by a large window on the 125th Street side
of the building.
Now that Jazz at Lincoln Center is open in the
Time Warner Center, the proposal says, momentum has been created
for a Harlem-based jazz institution "whose aesthetic
will be informed by the sensibilities of the uptown community."
RD Management's submission also includes a 150-room
hotel that would house a gallery for African-American art
and a Harlem-themed restaurant. "For example," the
proposal says, "the menu might offer a Zora Neale Hurston
salad, a Romare Bearden pasta, a Miles Davis omelette and
a Denzel burger."
The Jazz Museum would also be the cultural centerpiece
of a $123 million proposal by Integrated Holdings and Related
for a 150-room boutique hotel - with Inter-Continental as
a possible operator - and 90 residential condominium units.
Apollo Real Estate Advisers, along with Starwood
Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, has proposed a $103 million
W Hotel with 156 rooms, 58 residential condominiums and 4,000
square feet of office space for the Apollo Theater Foundation.
The Apollo Theater space would include rehearsal and education
areas, a black box theater and an Apollo cafe. The architect
on the project is Davis Brody Bond.
A proposal by the Victoria Tower Development
suggests a $150 million B. B. King Entertainment Center with
a jazz dinner club; an art gallery run by the Studio Museum
in Harlem; and a five-star, 304-room hotel. The other groups
in the running are Full Spectrum, which has proposed a $111
million complex including 78 luxury condominiums and two clubs
- Victoria Small's Paradise and 930 Blues Cafe with programming
that reflects black and Latino culture.
Thor Equities, which specializes in urban real
estate projects, proposes a $70 million complex, including
boutiques like Armani Exchange, Club Monaco and Kay Jewelers;
a revived Bottom Line club, possibly with a recording studio;
and a 238-room hotel.
Danforth Development Partners proposes creating
a $113 million new Savoy Ballroom with banquet space for 300
people, a 90-room hotel designed by Mr. Schrager and two new
theaters for Harlem-based performing arts companies like Classical
Theater of Harlem, Bill T. Jones Dance Group and the Harlem
School of the Arts.
At the meeting on Friday, it was clear that
several Harlem Community Development Corporation board members
were worried that a treasured neighborhood landmark would
be erased. One board member asked, "Can this theater
Diane P. Phillpotts, president of the corporation,
replied that substantial changes to the building would require
consultation with the New York State Historic Preservation
"I understand the importance of preservation,"
she said. "We also have to balance that against the economic
development potential of the property."