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NY TIMES: Thomas W. Lamb

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  • mrcooby
    October 5, 2008 Streetscapes | Thomas W. Lamb s Theaters An Architect for Stage and Screen By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 21, 2008
      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
      Century Fox.

      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.

      E-mail: streetscapes@...

      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
      altered it.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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