NY TIMES: Thomas W. Lamb
- October 5, 2008 Streetscapes | Thomas W. Lamb's Theaters An
Architect for Stage and Screen By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
THE architect Thomas W. Lamb was a king of theaters, with hundreds to
his credit, and at least 48 in New York. By the picture palace era of
the 1920s, his movie theater facades were not so different from those of
his competitors. But his smaller works, dating to the 1910s, are easily
recognizable, with facades of robustly modeled white terra cotta
like his Regent Theater, at 116th Street and Adam Clayton Powell
Boulevard, a particularly unusual work.
Mr. Lamb was born in Scotland and came to the United States in 1883 at
about age 10. Little is known of his education and apprenticeship, but
in 1903 he filed plans for his first project in New York: a small
clubhouse at 79th Street and the East River. For the first several
years, he designed a miscellany of minor buildings: lofts, garages, even
outhouses. But of his 10 Manhattan
newyorkcity/manhattan/?inline=nyt-geo> commissions in 1909, one was
from the theater entrepreneur William Fox, for what became the City
Theater. It was built on 14th Street just east of Fourth Avenue, but has
since been demolished.
Within just a few years, Mr. Lamb had developed theaters as a specialty.
In 1912 he designed nine of the 30 theaters planned in New York City
newyorkcity/manhattan/?inline=nyt-geo> , more than any other architect
(Henry Herts was in second place, with four).
His designs from the 1910s emphasized broad swaths of cream- or
white-colored glazed terra cotta with a bit of polychromy and deep
dramatic piers, window recesses and other large elements. His Eltinge
(later Empire) Theater, at 236 West 42nd Street, has a sumptuous archway
set between two large, battered piers of glazed terra cotta.
His Audubon Theater, still partially intact at 165th Street and
Broadway, has a facade of muscular terra-cotta frames around big show
windows, with the humorous decorative touch of foxes' heads. This
theater was built for Mr. Fox, whose company would evolve into 20th
The RKO 81st Street, at Broadway, now the base of an apartment house
with a Staples occupying the terra-cotta portion, has a two-story
Roman-style arcade, with deep-set windows separated by pilasters.
His most striking work from this period in Manhattan is the Regent, its
main facade a broad expanse of glazed terra-cotta squares offset 45
degrees, recalling the crisscross diaperwork on the Doge's Palace in
Soon Mr. Lamb was building worldwide, from Calcutta to Kansas City, and
his theaters of the 1920s had a smoother, more modern tone. Although the
Web site www.cinematreasures.org <http://www.cinematreasures.org/>
lists him as having designed 48 theaters in all in Manhattan, records of
the city's Department of Buildings tally filings for 56. His
obituary in The New York Herald Tribune in 1942 said he had done more
than 300 worldwide.
According to Warren G. Harris, author and theater historian, the Regent
showed movies exclusively, instead of the usual mix of vaudeville and
"photoplays." It was, he says, unusual for a large theater, with
a big stage area for presenting vaudeville, to adopt a movie-only
Some of Lamb's theaters from this period have been demolished, like
the striking Rivoli, which opened in 1917 on Broadway near 49th Street,
with its Doric temple front and broad tympanum sculpture. But there are
still quite a few throughout the five boroughs.
They are in remarkably good condition, compared with other terra-cotta
buildings of their age. The RKO 81st Street and even the complicated
facade of the Regent seem free from the large cracks and fractures
common to most other terra-cotta architecture of the period.
It is not that Mr. Lamb and his clients worked with a single terra-cotta
company. Rather, they worked with every major supplier Federal,
South Amboy, Atlantic, New York Architectural and others which
suggests they searched for low bids. Perhaps having the theater
developer as the end user assured a higher quality of installation.
(Many apartment buildings and commercial structures, by contrast, were
built to sell to investors after they were completed and occupied.)
The Regent has not been a theater since 1964, when it was sold to the
First Corinthian Baptist Church. At some point its cornice was stripped
off, leaving a bare scar, and the facade has a ragtag appearance, with
broken windows and similar decay. But the larger terra-cotta elements
appear to be intact.
Except for those that have fallen to the wrecker, Thomas Lamb's
distinctive terra-cotta theaters have proved remarkably durable.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 12, 2008
The Streetscapes column on Oct. 5, about the architecture of Thomas W.
Lamb, who specialized in designing theaters, misidentified the designer
of the Bushwick Theater, at Broadway and Howard Avenue in Brooklyn. It
was designed by William H. McElfatrick, not Lamb, although Lamb later
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