New York Architecture Images- Joseph Papp Public Theater

 

CONTEMPORARY NY
New York Architecture Images-Lower East Side

Joseph Papp Public Theater (orig. Astor Library) Landmark

architect

Alexander Saeltzer [1853]; Center section, Griffith Thomas [1859]; North wing, Thomas Stent [1881]

location

425 Lafayette St.  

date

1853

style

Renaissance Revival, Rundbogenstil (German round-arched neo-Romanesque)  

construction

 

type

Library
 
 
 
 
 
Joseph Papp Public Theater

425 Lafayette Street, (between East Fourth Street and Astor Place)
New York, NY 10003
Box Office: 212-598-7150

An historical landmark and former site of the Astor Library, the Public Theater was saved from the wrecking ball by the legendary Joseph Papp to become home to six theaters, producing the best of original drama and comedy as well as new productions of timeless classics.

Over the years, the Public has been responsible for the original productions of "Hair," "A Chorus Line," "The Normal Heart," "That Championship Season," The Joseph Papp production of "The Pirates of Penzance," and "Twilight Los Angeles 1994," amongst many others.

Currently under the stewardship of Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe, the Public Theater offers theater-goers the opportunity to see the best of theater in an atmosphere as exciting and eclectic as the city that surrounds it. In a large, newly renovated lobby, audiences meet and mingle before and after their respective shows -- it has re-emerged as the cultural watering hole for the '90s and beyond.

Also available is the film program -- "Film at the Public," a cutting edge series of the best of foreign and art-house cinema geared towards challenging the audience on many different levels.

General Information

Hours: Box Office: 1-7 pm daily, except Monday 1-6 pm
Admission: Price varies; single tickets usually $15 - $37.50; some discount tickets available day of performance
Giftshop: Lobby theater giftshop: Tuesday-Friday 4 pm through performance; Saturday, Sunday 1 pm through performance
Food Services: Light refreshments available during performances
Library Archival materials at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Disability Access: Fully accessible
Directions: Subway: N or R to 8th Street; 6 to Astor Place; F to Broadway-Lafayette; Bus: M1 to 8th Street
Landmark Status: National Register of Historic Places, New York City Landmark
Group Tours: Group rates are available for theatrical productions as well as post-performance discussions with the cast and creative team; for information call 212-598-7107
City-owned, privately operated

Manhattan Photography/Film/Video Theater


John Jacob Astor indeed created a real estate legacy but his social standing in the city did not equal his wealth. His heirs proclaimed him a philanthropist by building the first wing of the Astor Library (the southern end) as a gift to the city--with strings attached. The arrival of German polytechnical graduates to America in the mid-19th century helped transmit the Round Arched Style to this country at this time. The Round Arched Style was an inexpensive but coherent and appropriate design for this this private/public building. Expanded twice since its original construction, the library is a rare surviving example of this style in NYC.

John Jacob Astor

ASTOR, John Jacob, merchant, born in Walddorf, near Heidelberg, Germany, 17 July 1768; died in New York, 29 March 1848. He was the fourth son of a butcher in Walldorf, and until he was sixteen years of age he worked with his father. He then joined an elder brother in London, who was employed in the piano and flute factory of their uncle, of the firm of Astor & Broadwood, widely known afterward as Broadwood & county His brother Henry had settled in New York, and his intention was to emigrate to the United States as soon as he could save enough money. In 1783 he sailed for Baltimore with a small invoice of musical instruments to sell on commission. On shipboard he met with a furrier, who told him of the profits to be made in buying furs from the Indians and frontiersmen and selling them to the large dealers, and, in order to become familiar with the fur business, he entered into the employ of a Quaker furrier in New York and, when he had mastered the numerous details of the trade, began business on his own account, opening a shop in Water street, in which he worked early and late, except when absent on his purchasing trips. Soon after he established himself in New York he visited London, formed connections with houses in the fur trade, and made arrangements with Astor & Broadwood to become their agent in America. After his return to New York he opened a wareroom for the sale of musical instruments, becoming the first regular dealer in such articles in the United States. He married Sarah Todd, who brought him a dowry of only $300, but who possessed a frugal mind and a business judgment that he declared to be better than that of most merchants, and she assisted him in the practical details of his business. Before the close of the century Astor possessed, as the result of fifteen years of constant work, a fortune of $250,000. He then for the first time took a house separate from his store. With sagacious management the business prospered to such an extent that he was able to ship furs in his own vessels and bring back European goods. He made frequent voyages up the Mohawk, to buy directly from the Indians, and also dealt largely with the great English fur companies. About 1809 he conceived a national scheme to render American trade independent of the Hudson bay company, and to carry civilization into the wilderness, for which he asked the aid of congress. His project was to establish a chain of trading posts from the lakes to the Pacific, to plant a central depot at the mouth of Columbia river, and to acquire one of the Sandwich islands and establish a line of vessels between the western coast of America and the ports of China and India. Two expeditions were sent, one by land and the other' by sea, to open up intercourse with the Indians of the Pacific coast. In 1811 the settlement of Astoria was planted at the mouth of the Columbia river, but the war of 1812 interfered with Astor's gigantic enterprise and caused its abandonment. The story of this far-reaching scheme has been well told in Irving's "Astoria." At this time Astor bought American government securities at 60 or 70cents, which after the war doubled in value. After the conclusion of peace he carried on his operations without government support, and established a trade with many countries, particularly China, but never realized the project of founding settlements in the northwest. He invested his gains in real estate outside the compact portion of the city of New York, and as the city extended he erected many handsome buildings. His judgment in business was remarkably sagacious, his habits industrious and methodical, and his memory exceedingly tenacious, retaining the slightest details. For the last twenty-five years of his life he lived in quiet retirement. In this period, in consultation with literary and practical men, he matured a plan for establishing a public library in New York, the first suggestion of which had come from Washington Irving. He left $400,000 for founding the Astor library, which provision was carried out by his son, William born Astor. He made other bequests for benevolent objects, in addition to liberal gifts during his lifetime, one of which was 850.000 to found the Astor House in Walldorf, his birthplace, an institute for the education of poor children, combined with an asylum for the aged and needy, His fortune at the time of his death was estimated at $20,000,000. Fitz-Greene Halleck, the poet, who was his secretary for seventeen years, expressed the opinion that Mr. Astor would have been eminently successful in any profession.*His eldest son, William Backhouse, capitalist, born in New York, 19 September 1792; died in that City, 24 November 1875. Until he was sixteen he went to the public schools, employing his spare hours and vacations in assisting his father in the store. He was then sent to Heidelberg, and after two years went to G6ttingen in 1810, and chose as his tutor a student, afterward known as the Chevalier Bunsen, with whom he also traveled. On his return to New York at the age of twenty-three, his father engaged in the China trade, and took him into partnership. The house was known as John Jacob Astor & Son from 1815 till 1827. In the latter year the firm, which was one of the largest in the China trade, was dissolved, the Astors retired from the Canton trade, and the American fur company was formed, with William born Astor as its president, though the father took the more active part in the business, which for several years yielded large profits. Finally the elder Astor withdrew, and was soon followed by his son, and from that time forth neither of them engaged again in commerce. When John Jacob Astor died in 1848, he made his eldest son his sole heir, although he provided well for his other relatives. William was already rich, having been successful in business, and having received from his uncle, Henry, a fortune of $500,000, and from his father the title to the Astor House property as a gift. William born Astor, then fifty-six years of age, gave himself to the preservation and growth of the vast property. He added to the bequest of his father for the Astor library the sum of $250,000, of which he paid during his lifetime $201,000 in land, books, and money. The edifice was completed under his directions in May 1853. In 1855 he presented to the trustees the adjoining lot, and erected thereon a similar structure, which was completed in 1859. He next gave $50,000 for the purchase of books. He gave much patient attention for many years to the administration of the library. Following the example of his father, he invested in real estate, principally situated below Central park, between 4th and 7th avenues, which rapidly increased in value. For about thirteen years prior to 1873 he was largely engaged in build-rag, until much of his hitherto unoccupied land was covered by houses, mostly of the first class. He was said to own in 1867 as many as 720 houses, and he was also heavily interested in railroad, coal, and insurance companies. Besides other charitable gifts, he gave $50,000 to St. Luke's hospital, and in his will he left $200,000 to the Astor library, in addition to $49,000, the unexpended balance of his earlier donation. His estate, estimated at $45,000,-000, was divided by his will between his two sons, John Jacob and William Astor, who were given only a life interest in the residuary estate, which descends to their children. The gifts and bequests of William born Astor to the Astor library amounted altogether to about $550,000. In 1879 his eldest son, John Jacob, presented three lots adjoining the library building, and erected on them a third structure similar to the others, and added a story to the central building. The edifice is represented on page 112. His outlay, exclusive of land, was about $250,000, making the entire gift of the Astor family more than $1,000,000.*Will. iam Waldorf', son of John Jacob, was graduated at Columbia law school in 1875. He served one term in the New York state senate, and was an unsuccessful candidate for congress. He was United States minister to Italy from 1882 till 1885, and has published "Valentino," an Italian romance of the 16th century (New York, 1886).

 

Streetscapes/The Old Astor Library, Now the Joseph Papp Public Theater; Once It Held Many Pages; Now It Has Many Stages 
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY 
Published: February 10, 2002, Sunday 

OPENED in 1854 as the Astor Library, the Joseph Papp Public Theater is both one of New York's oldest public buildings and a benchmark 1960's preservation project. Now, more than three decades later, the Public Theater has made progress upgrading the many elements that make up what has been a crucible for New York theater. But the completion of an ambitious $50 million master plan is not certain. 
Before the financier John Jacob Astor died in 1848, he worked with the book collector and librarian Joseph Green Cogswell to lay the groundwork, with a gift of $400,000, for a great public library. Within two months of Astor's death, the trustees -- including Cogswell, Washington Irving, the writer Fitz-Greene Halleck and Samuel Ruggles, the developer of Gramercy Park -- met to develop specific plans. The site was on the east side of what is now Lafayette Street, south of Eighth Street, at that time a distinguished residential address. 


Cogswell was able to acquire books cheaply during the unrest in Europe of the late 1840's, and the first building -- the southern third of what is now the Public Theater -- opened in 1854 with more than 80,000 volumes. The architect, Alexander Saeltzer, developed a wonderfully open two-story-high hall surrounded by gilded balconies and books arranged in double-height alcoves. 

But patrons had to apply to the librarians for access to the books. In a letter, Cogswell reflected on his decision to have closed stacks. ''It would have crazed me,'' he said, ''to have seen a crowd ranging lawlessly among the books, and throwing everything into confusion.'' 

In another letter, he said that the library was getting about 200 visitors a day. ''They read excellent books,'' he wrote, ''except the young fry, who employ all the hours they are out of school in reading the trashy, as Scott, Cooper, Dickens, Punch and The Illustrated News.'' The building was extended to the north (the present center section of the Public Theater) in 1859, and northward again in 1881. The additions echoed Saeltzer's design. 

There were early and frequent complaints about library policies, often directed at the Astor family. It was open during only daylight hours, and Frank H. Norton, writing in The Galaxy magazine in 1869, said that the hours excluded the working class and poor. ''The picture I have seen drawn by enthusiastic newspaper hacks of the rich capitalist and the mechanic sitting here side by side in honorable community of thought is agreeable, but also entirely fanciful,'' he wrote. 

THE library's policy of closed stacks and no loans was also much lamented. Those who favored tight controls pointed to patrons like the writer Richard Boyle Davy, who in 1872 tore 98 pages from an old volume of the Revue de Paris magazine to try to hide his plagiarism of one of its stories. 

In 1894, even after the library put some basic reference books on open shelves and granted stack access to some researchers, The New York Daily Tribune noted that the reader felt like ''an interloper and intruder'' against the librarians' longstanding ''reputation for churlishness and indifference.'' 

This sentiment was evoked again in 1897 when Jacob Friedman, a student at City College, removed nine books surreptitiously. He got the sympathy of Magistrate Henry A. Brann by saying he had taken them temporarily for classwork because his parents were too poor to buy them. Magistrate Brann repeatedly implored the library to drop its complaint, saying that a conviction would ruin the boy's life, but the library refused to budge. 

It soon developed, however, that the boy had given a false name and torn out the title pages with the library's stamp on them. It is not clear how his case ended. 

In 1898, after the Astor trustees agreed to become part of the new public library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, The New York Times noted that the elegant old building ''seems today out of joint with its surroundings in the heart of the clothing trade.'' The reporter described the library as full of the idle, as well as professional ghost writers at work on articles, speeches and sermons, ''cavernous-eyed, shabby, male and female.'' 

After the Astor Library relocated, an organization now known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society bought the building. Its architect, Benjamin Levitan, floored over the northerly and southerly double-height spaces and ripped out the elaborate iron and wood book stacks but left many of the columns, skylights, vaulted ceilings and other details. Even in its altered state, the interior contains some of New York's most remarkable Victorian spaces, although they are not designated landmarks. The society used the building as a receiving station, aid center, dormitory and synagogue for thousands of newly arrived immigrants. 

In 1965 the society sold the building to a developer who was about to demolish it when the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which had recently been established, stepped in for its first major victory. It arranged for the producer Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival to buy the building for $560,000 for an indoor complex to add to his existing success with outdoor performances of Shakespeare in Central Park. The architecture critic for The Times, Ada Louise Huxtable, called it ''the miracle on Lafayette Street.'' 

Mr. Papp, who died in 1991, hired Giorgio Cavaglieri to convert the building. Mr. Cavaglieri had been working on the conversion of what is now the Jefferson Market Courthouse in Greenwich Village into a library. 

He recalled that Mr. Papp had first wanted to put a 700-seat theater into the surviving double-height room in the center. But it was too expensive, and so he altered the space into what is now the Anspacher Theater, where the musical ''Hair'' opened in 1967 as the Public Theater's first production. In 1975, in the complex's Newman Theater, ''A Chorus Line,'' directed by Michael Bennett, opened before moving to Broadway for a 15-year run. The Public now has seven theaters in its building. 

Bob Foreman, the director of operations, said the Public has spent $12 million on projects like reconstructing the lower level of the old north hall, installing a mezzanine level for more dressing rooms and production support spaces. ''Audiences demand more realistic sets now,'' he said. Other theaters in the complex have been upgraded in recent years. 

Polshek Partnership Architects has developed a master plan for the Public Theater that calls for expanding the Anspacher Theater from 299 to 499 seats. That project, though, is a long way off. ''Even before Sept. 11 we thought in terms of a decade,'' Mr. Foreman said. 

Part of the plan is to rebuild the building's front stoop, to provide more space in the entrance hall. James Stewart Polshek said it also bothered him that ''there's nothing mediating the building face and the curb.'' 

''Restoring the stoop,'' Mr. Polshek said, ''has long been a dream of mine.'' 

Published: 02 - 10 - 2002 , Late Edition - Final , Section 11 , Column 1 , Page 7 

Correction: February 17, 2002, Sunday

The Streetscapes column last Sunday, about the Joseph Papp Public Theater, which was once the Astor Library, referred imprecisely to the New York Public Library building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. While the Astor's trustees indeed agreed in 1895 to become part of the public library, the 42nd Street building was not completed until 1911. 

Copyright New York Times.

contact

nyc-architecture.com

links