Brooklyn structure: Brownsville’s Loew’s Pitkin Avenue Theater
Editor’s Note: This post was originally run in 2013 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.
The age of the great movie palace is over, but Loew’s Pitkin Avenue Theater at 1501 Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville is still reminiscent of the glamorous past. In the teenage years and the 1930s, movie palaces were built to provide an escape into the fantasy world of live theater follies and Hollywood films with exciting stories from beautiful lead actors and handsome lead actors.
For the average person, the theater itself would be a haven, a fantasy building with exotic decor, upholstered and classy sets, gilded surfaces and bright lights. These palaces were everything a local cold-water blunt apartment wasn’t, an escape to another world. And no one built a fantasy theater like Thomas Lamb, the architect of Loew’s Pitkin.
He was the best of a handful of theater architects and designers who made magic. Lamb was born in Scotland and came to the United States as a child of 12 years old. He received his architectural training from Cooper Union and set up his office on 40th Street in the theater district.
His first theater was in 1909 for the film mogul William Fox. He was the architect of choice for Loew’s, Fox and RKO chains. His theater designs have graced cities around the world, with nearly 50 here in New York and theaters from Philadelphia to Toronto, Jakarta to London, Cleveland to Johannesburg.
The Pitkin, which was built between 1929 and 1930, was one of its largest with 2,817 seats. The Löw chain called the theater one of their “atmospheric” theaters because it carried people away into another world.
The exterior was Art Deco with Mayan and Art Nouveau accents and gave no indication of the wonders inside. But as soon as you walked in, you were greeted by a Moorish foyer with majolica plaques and embroidered hangings.
The theater itself was “a huge garden under a blue sky, surrounded by tall sculpted walls, surmounted by carved towers and balconies.” The women’s lounge was Persian with “oriental furniture” and the men had “a collection of African tribal weapons”.
Brownsville’s population at the time was Jewish working class. The theater was a popular venue for Actors of the Day such as Milton Berle, Humphrey Bogart, and Jackie Gleason. Al Jolson made his last appearance here. But Brownsville was changing and by the 1960s it was synonymous with big housing projects and dire poverty, the poorest part of Brooklyn. The pitkin slowly deteriorated and closed in 1969.
Like many theaters, it became a church for a while, and then a furniture store and warehouse. Then it stood empty for more than 40 years while the roof and walls deteriorated and ceilings, balconies and once fine trains collapsed or hung on a thread. The building looked doomed and should soon be an urban footnote.
In 2008 POKO Partners, under the direction of President and Owner Ken Olson, bought the Pitkin for $ 8 million. They intended to build mixed-use apartments and retail properties, but the plans failed. In 2010, they began a $ 43 million renovation of the property, this time for a charter school with commercial and retail space. They have received funding from Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group and tax credits from Federal New Markets, among others.
Two architectural firms were involved in the project: Kitchen & Associates of New Jersey, who worked on the outside and remodeled the space for the school, and Anderson-Miller Designs of Manhattan. They preserved much of the architectural ornamentation and worked in the unique space to create the school as well as the rest of the building.
Since the theater takes up an entire block, the impressive Art Deco exterior and the crowd now shining again can be seen on all four sides. It bears a remarkable resemblance to the Lions United Palace in Manhattan at 4140 Broadway, which was also designed by Lamb and built in the same years from 1929 to 1930. It was built as a landmark in 2016.
The tape cutting for the project took place on September 13, 2012. The Brownsville Ascend Charter School is in the building and the retail space is filled with a dollar tree and a pizza hut.
Email [email protected] with additional comments, questions, or tips. Follow Brownstoner on Twitter and Instagram and like us on Facebook.