A developer’s plan to demolish Great Neck Estates’ historic First Playhouse Theater and build an apartment building in its place has drawn criticism from local preservationists.
‘“The group wishes to communicate to you our belief that the two exterior facades, on Maple Street and on Middle Neck Road, should be preserved as originally planned by the current owners. Our motto is “Saving the Past for the Future,’ and we believe that the playhouse is a landmark which certainly should be saved,” wrote the Great Neck Historical Society in a letter to Great Neck Estates Fox. “It is a reminder of an exciting period in our history when we were both literally and figuratively just ‘30 minutes from Broadway.’ A substitute copy of the building is not the same.”
The theater, which has been defunct since 1980 and the subject of residential conversion plans for over a decade, is being redesigned by Newman Design Group. The developers say it would be much more cost-effective to completely rebuild the structure than renovate the interior while preserving the facade, and Village of Great Neck Mayor David Fox told the Great Neck Record that any plan would replicate the look of the original building.
Great Neck Estates village historian Ilse Kagan said that preservationists consider the building worthy of landmark status, and that the theater was a reminder of Great Neck’s Jazz Age legacy as a theatrical center and favored vacation spot for Manhattan’s cultural elite.
“It is considered by outsiders and insiders as a very important building in the village, and the history of course is phenomenal,” Kagan said. “The playhouse recalls Great Neck’s glorious days.”
An interior renovation of the theater that would have kept the facade was under consideration until the plan’s original architect died, Kagan said.
“Now to say that they’re going to take it down and rebuild it is absurd,” said Kagan. “I don’t think that’s a solution.
Fox and Village of Great Neck Plaza Mayor Jean Celender, whose village borders the theater’s Middle Neck Road address, did not return multiple requests for comment.
“The board has been working with the owner and developer for over nine years to rehabilitate the site and create a luxury living environment,” Fox wrote in an April 15 letter to village residents. “Several problems have been encountered along the way after an incentive zoning permit was issued over five years ago. Funding during the economic downturn and the passing of the original architect were the two most dramatic events to date.”
Great Neck Estates has granted a nine-month extension to the owners’ zoning permit in order to address further questions about the project.
“During that time, we will meet to address every aspect of this new proposal,” Fox wrote. “Please be assured that we will continue to act in the most conservative manner in addressing this project.”
The towns of Great Neck Estates and Great Neck Plaza first started to work together on the construction of this project in 2007, but the genesis of the plans to redevelop the theater goes back to 1999.
A Manhattan development group planned at that time to convert the theater into 12 luxury apartments, according to the New York Times.
The theater has a long history, but its stage and silver screens have lain dormant for decades.
The theater was built in 1925 at a cost of $450,000, or nearly $6 million in 2013 dollars, according to an article written by Kagan. Its owner, Irving Lesser, was in the food business before making a foray into theater, wrote Kagan, citing a 1925 newspaper article.
The playhouse attracted many of the stage’s leading lights, including the Marx Brothers, Irving Berlin and Oscar Hammerstein. It also hosted screenings of early Hollywood films, including Lillian Gish vehicle “The Enemy” and Greta Garbo films, according to Kagan.
United Artists began showing movies at the theater in 1930, according to the New York Times, but by 1982 the theater’s lower level had been renovated into an indoor parking lot.