Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Originally Roebling Theater, then Wilson Theater, now Congregation Adas Yereim.
Address: 27 Lee Avenue
Cross Streets: Roebling and Wilson Streets
Year Built: 1919
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival
Architect: Groenberg & Leuchtag
Other Buildings by Architect: 37 Washington Square, 201 W. 92nd St, both apartment buildings in Manhattan.
The story: I find theater history to be a fascinating subject. Movie theaters, opera and concert houses, legitimate and vaudeville theaters; all are not only interesting as architecture, but as guideposts in understanding popular culture and history. I’m not the only person who thinks so, there are societies, internet groups, websites and books that join people who are seriously interested in chronicling these places before they disappear, or just want to reminisce about their childhood adventures. There is a fantastic website called cinematreasures.com which lists every past and present theater they can document, and locally, we have a wonderful collector of theater history named Cezar Del Valle, who has collected more Brooklyn theater information than probably anyone else around, and written two great books. Much of my information on Brooklyn’s theaters comes from them. So in wondering about this building, which I pass whenever I drive across the Williamsburg Bridge to go home, I went to these sources.
It turns out that this sprawling building, where Roebling intersects with Lee, was built as a movie theater, in 1919, and was called the Roebling Theater. This corner of Williamsburg was built upon, razed, built upon, and raised several times, leaving a fascinating layer of history to comment upon. It was the site of the Lee Avenue Baptist Church, in the late 1800’s. In 1881, the building was sold and reconfigured to become the Grand Opera House, and then the Lee Avenue Academy of Music, a concert and performance hall, which operated until 1895. The Brooklyn Eagle remarked in 1894 that the place must be a “hoo-doo”, as everything and everyone associated with the hall had extremely bad luck. It went into foreclosure in ’95, and limped along under new ownership until 1900.
In 1900, the theater was renovated and refigured again, this time as Corse Payton’s Lee Avenue Theater. Payton was a popular and flamboyant actor and impresario, and his theater featured large lavish stage productions that starred himself, of course, and his wife. He was known affectionately as “America’s Best Bad Actor.”(Mr. Payton will definitely be appearing in a Walkabout in the future.) But this only worked for a few years. By 1914, the house was running movies and a fight club. Two years later, it was torn down. In 1918, this building, built as a movie theater with second floor offices, was built.
The architects were Groenberg & Leuchtag, a Manhattan firm that is on record for a couple of apartment buildings in Manhattan, including a favorite of mine, the polychrome terra-cotta clad 37 Washington Square West, which is now an NYU dorm. I always wondered who did this one, and now I know.
The new theater seated about 1000 people, and was built to run first run films. They had an orchestra pit for musicians, and opened in June of 1919. The Roebling operated until 1936, when it became the Wilson Theater. The Wilson operated from 1936 until 1945, when it was shut down, and remained empty for some years. Today it is Congregation Adas Yereim, with a synagogue and Torah school. Arial views of the building show the curved stage shape in the back of the building. Who knew? GMAP