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200 Central Park South: Theater Capital of a Bygone Era

Before becoming one of the most fashionable addresses for sophisticated New Yorkers, the land on which 200 Central Park South now stands was of complicated provenance, having been mortgaged, inherited, and leased through the families Moreau, Somarndyck, Tallman, and finally William T Cock.

1811 map showing the ownership of the farmlands of the area that would later become Central Park and Central Park South.

Excerpt of a will that details the plot of the future 200 Central Park South, and its legally complicated provenance.

Below is an illustration of the area, just one block over (the view is of 59th and Eight, looking morth). To the left is Bloomingdale Road - precursor to the modern Broadway. Eighth Avenue and Central Park (still under construction) are to the right. That this area was still farmland as late as 1861 - the time this image was created - demonstrates the continuing rural nature of the neighborhood.

An illustration of 59th and Eighth Avenue, with Bloomingdale Road emerging from the bottom center towards the left. The farmland of John H Tallman is depicted. 1861.

Within just a few years, this would all change.

By 1868, the west side of 58th-59th streets and Seventh Avenue was occupied by a series of buildings known as the "Central Park Garden" - one of the most illustrious and busy theaters of New York at the time. At the corner of 59th and Seventh, where now stands the entrance to 200 Central Park South, stood a large restaurant at which the theatergoers would sit for hours after a show recounting their favorite melodies.

Next door stood the theater itself.

Photograph depicting Central Park Garden. The sign stands atop the stately restaurant which stood at the corner, while the partially-covered auditorium and gardens stand to the right. Circa 1870s.

The theater's fame and success was certainly not due to the structure itself, which was, in fact, quite modest. Rather, it was thanks to the efforts of Theodore Thomas (October 11, 1835 – January 4, 1905), who assembled and trained the first American Symphonic Orchestra. The orchestra was regarded by the New York Times in 1872 as “the most proficient orchestra in the country."

The theater itself had a partially covered auditorium, fountains, gardens, a raised stage for the orchestra and seats for hundreds. It was sponsored by the restauranteurs at the corner, from whom Theodore Thomas leased the garden and auditorium. "Central Park Garden" - a pleasure garden in the old European sense of the term - derived its name from the great park recently planned immediately to the site's north.

A rare stereograph (used for showing "3D" images popular at the time) showing the inside of Central Park Garden. Fountains, a stage, a garden, and seating can be seen. Circa 1870s.

From its opening in the May of 1868 until October 1875, Thomas and his orchestra performed 1,127 concerts. His ability to schedule daily rehearsals and nightly performances 6 months out of 12, attracted the country's finest musicians and allowed them to train for perfection.

Photograph of Henry Schmitz, solo horn of the Theodore Thomas Orchestra from 1866-1877. Considered the first virtuoso horn player of the United States. Photo from 1867.

Thomas is further credited with attracting not just New York's cultural elite to the theater, but with engaging larger segments of the city's one-million strong population with classical music. He helped popularize composers such as Beethoven and Wagner (the city's two favorites; the New York Times would later note that Thomas was the first to play Wagner), Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms (just 35 when in 1868, was an early discovery of Thomas), Liszt, Berlioz, Haydn, and more. His lineup boasted a robust mix of classic and contemporary composers, unheard of at the time.

Various portraits of Theodore Thomas.

It is important to recall that Central Park Garden was quite remote from New York's most fashionable neighborhoods at the time. Patrons would reach the theater by means of the Seventh Avenue train which terminated at Central Park, or by horse-drawn cars on Sixth or Eighth Avenues and the omnibuses which took Fifth - all of which travelled just five miles per hour.

In 1872, James McCabe wrote in his Lights and Shadows of New York Life:

The Central Park Garden, at the corner of Seventh avenue and Fifty-ninth street, is more of an American institution than the Atlantic. It consists of a handsome hall surrounded on three sides by a gallery, and opening at the back upon grounds a moderate size, tastefully laid out, and adorned with rustic stalls and arbors for the use of guests. At the Atlantic the admission is free. Here one pays fifty cents for the privilege of entering the grounds and building. During the summer months nightly concerts, with Saturday matinées, are given here by Theodore Thomas and his famous orchestra—the finest organization of its kind in America. The music is of a high order, and is rendered in a masterly manner. Many lovers of music come to New York in the summer simply to hear these concerts.

The place is the fashionable resort of the city in the summer. The audience is equal to anything to be seen in the city. One can meet here all the celebrities who happen to be in town, and as every one is free to do as he pleases, there is no restraint to hamper one’s enjoyment. You may sit and smoke and drink, or stroll through the place the whole evening, merely greeting your acquaintances with a nod, or you may join them, and chat to your heart’s content. Refreshments and liquors of all kinds are sold to guests; but the prices are high. The Central Park Garden, or, as it is called by strangers, “Thomas’s Garden,” is the most thoroughly enjoyable place in the city in the summer.

In 1890, in a great blow to the City, Thomas was wooed to Chicago where he would be able to continue his work:

The New York Times, November 19, 1890

Certainly, New Yorkers felt great pride in Thomas. When he died in 1905, the New York Times had this to say:

It is hard to estimate the debt that this country owes to THEODORE THOMAS. It is the debt of a pupil to a teacher; or it is the debt of a people led out of a wilderness to the prophet who has shown them a sight of the promised land. To Mr. THOMAS more than to any other single force is due the present state of musical culture in this country.

Meanwhile, by the early 1890s, the golden age of the Central Park Garden had come to an end.

In 1891, the large building was converted to become the Central Park Riding Academy, in which New Yorkers could learn - within the city - proper horse riding and polo. Musical symbols wrought on the iron gates gave tribute to the theater that once stood there.

Various views of the Central Park Riding Academy.

On October 10, 1893, a cigarette was tossed into a pile of hay, resulting in a fire that caused a stampede of some 200 horses. Some fled to the nearby Central Park, while others gave chase for blocks southward. One horse, Laperello, perished in the flames. About $2,000 worth of damage was done to the building.

1891 Map of Columbus Circle and Central Park South. The Central Park Riding Academy is indicated.

On August 1st, 1920, the front page of the New York Times' real estate section announced that the Schuberts had bought the site of the then-old riding academy, and later a natatorium (a building containing a swimming pool, and often, related activities) and would be turning it back into a theater, built by architect Herbert J. Krapp.

The New York Times, August 1st, 1920.

1923 Map of Columbus Circle and Central Park South. The Jolson Theatre is indicated.

The Schubert company named the theater Al Jolson's 59th Street Theatre, after the famed vaudeville and minstrel singer/actor/entertainer, Al Jolson. In the 1930s, Jolson was America's highest paid and most popular performer.

Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson; May 26, 1886 – October 23, 1950). Dubbed "The World's Greatest Entertainer" at the peak of his career.

Although the theater was originally (and most famously and frequently) known as Jolson's 59th Street Theater (or the Yiddish Theater), the site again went through many transformations over a relatively short period. This list demonstrates the ever-changing nature of the building:

  • 1921 - Jolson's 59th Street Theatre - Named for Al Jolson, Opened October 6, 1921

  • 1931 - Central Park Theatre - Showed films

  • 1932 - Shakespeare Theatre - Named for William Shakespeare, Opened November 17, 1932

  • 1934 - Venice Theatre - Repened November 26, 1934

  • 1942 - Jolson's 59th Street Theatre - Named for Al Jolson, Reopened May 26, 1942

  • 1943 - Molly Picon Theatre - Named for Molly Picon, actress. Reopened October 2, 1942

  • 1943 - Jolson's 59th Street Theatre - Showed foreign films

  • 1944 - New Century Theatre - a.k.a. Century Theatre. Reopened April 8, 1944

Ephemera from the various theaters that occupied the site first used by Jolson's 59th Street Theatre.

Notable productions included:

  • 1923: Three Sisters; The Cherry Orchard; Irene

  • 1924: The Student Prince

  • 1929: Naughty Marietta

  • 1932: A Midsummer Night's Dream

  • 1937: The Cradle Will Rock

  • 1944: Follow the Girls

  • 1947: High Button Shoes

  • 1948: Kiss Me, Kate

  • 1950: Out of This World by Cole Porter

  • 1951: Jose Greco Ballet

  • 1953: Carnival in Flander

By the late 1940s/early 1950s, the theater had 1800 seats and was used by NBC for the taping of television shows in front of a live studio audience.

The theater was shuttered in 1954 and demolished in 1962, ending nearly 100 continuous years as a site of amusement for New Yorkers.

The white glove apartment building, 200 Central Park South, was erected the following year, built by Bernard Spitzer and Melvin D. Lipman, and designed by Wechsler & Schimenti. It turned co-op in 1984.

Modern floorplan for a typical "B" line apartment at 200 Central Park South.

It is described by the marketing literature for the building:

The design principle applied to 200 Central Park South is a kind of self-referential Modernism that is one of a kind in the Manhattan area. The exterior of the building is made of brick and painted in elegant beige. The base of this structure is well known for its distinctive succeeding bands of balconies and curved arc corner and the intelligent curved design of the this building is not only beautiful; it also allows the apartments to have views of the nearby Central Park. Only the top fourteen floors are not curved, however, they have maximized views thanks to their angle corner windows. Enhancing the apartment with exceptional views is a very important factor of the buildings structure. Overall, it is a work of beauty that people would want to live in.

Contemporary view of the area, from Google Maps.

Many of the images in this article are available as framed, retouched prints. To purchase them, visit the gallery.


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