Building of the Day: 1515 Bedford Avenue

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Originally the Savoy Theater, then Charity Neighborhood Baptist Church
Address: 1515 Bedford Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner of Lincoln Place
Neighborhood: Crow Hill/Crown Heights North
Year Built: 1926
Architectural Style: Neo-Classical
Architect: Thomas Lamb
Other Work by Architect: Many theaters in Manhattan and Brooklyn, including the Loew’s Bedford, now Washington Temple on Bedford and Bergen, and Loew’s Pitkin Theater in Brownsville. In Manhattan, Loew’s 175th St. Theater and Warner’s Hollywood Theater, now Time Square Church.
Landmarked: No, which is the focus of this story.

The story: I actually featured this building a long time ago, in an early BOTD from 2010. You can see it here. No one commented then; perhaps you will comment today. This last weekend, Morgan Munsey and I were leading a rain soaked but enthusiastic group of people on a walking tour of Bedford Avenue’s Automobile Row, and this building was one of the featured stops on the tour. As I was talking about the building, I noticed that the sign for Charity Baptist was no longer visible, and there was a dumpster in front of the building. One of the guys on the tour lives in Crown Heights, and knew what was going on, and here’s the sad story: The Savoy will soon be rubble.

He told us that the story has been a topic on the Brooklynian blog, and their conversation can be found here. Long story short, the building was sold last year, and demolition has already gutted the interior, and all that remains is to tear down the rest of the building, in order to build high rise housing. I did a quick search on PropertyShark, and this enormous building was bought for only $575,000. The building’s footprint is 75 feet by 100 feet.

The theater was built for movie mogul William Fox, of 20th Century Fox fame, in 1926, by Thomas Lamb, one of the foremost theater and movie palace architects of the early 20th century. Working for the Loew’s chain, Fox, and other large theater chains, Lamb was responsible for the iconic “movie temples” that became so famous in the ’20s and ’30s, luxurious and opulent over-the-top fantastic theaters that for a couple of hours took a struggling populace out of their hard lives into a world of fantasy, riches and imagination. Many of Lamb’s theaters are gone, but the remaining ones are treasured for what they are, and some, like the B.F. Keith Memorial Theater in Boston, have been restored and are still used today.

When the Savoy was opened in 1927, it was the largest of William Fox’s theaters to date, and was the impresario’s headquarters until he had the Fox Theater built two years later, in Downtown Brooklyn. The theater had 2,750 seats, and ran high quality vaudeville shows on its stage until movies replaced stage shows a few years later. The theater was one of Crown Height’s three large movie theaters until it closed in 1964. It was later sold to Charity Baptist Church. Ironically, all three of those theaters, the Savoy, the Loew’s Bedford, and the Kameo all became churches.

Thomas Lamb’s façade is beautiful, a Neo-Classical temple, clad in glazed white terra cotta, with elegant columns facing the large windows, a running band of wave tiles running along the middle, and shell tiles along the roof, among other things. When the theater was built, it had a restaurant on the ground floor, and that was long ago altered, and the terra cotta replaced by an ugly brick job, but the bones were still there. Inside, many of the original details remained in the main movie auditorium, as can be seen in the original BOTD link, taken when Charity Baptist was still holding services in that space.

The church needed money to do extensive repairs, and of course, being a shrinking economically disadvantaged congregation, they didn’t have it, and there was a lis pendens on the building, as well. So they sold the building for tear down, with the developer promising that members of the congregation would be able to have a preferential standard in renting an affordable apartment there when the new housing was completed. I hope Charity got that in writing.

I’m angry for a couple of reasons. First of all, this building should be saved and landmarked. It is a cultural icon of a movie age of old, a big part of the history of Crown Heights, the history of Fox and movie theaters in Brooklyn and America, and an important part of Thomas Lamb’s shrinking number of contributions to architecture. America has been shaped by the movies in myriad ways, and large movie houses like this are a part of that legacy.

We blew this one, from a preservation and community standpoint. We didn’t know it was endangered, the congregation didn’t reach out to the community, or to any kind of preservation entities with a cry for help, and now that’s it’s been gutted, and has a permit for demo dated last year, it’s too late to do anything but take photographs, and maybe grab a terra-cotta chunk of debris from the pile of rubble when it’s all over. Where was the community on this? No one drove, or walked by and noticed anything? And beyond that, realistically speaking, what would happen to the building had it been individually landmarked? There’s not a big demand for enormous theaters that need a lot of work. Could it have been converted to housing, or bought by nearby Medgar Evers College for their use? Would landmarking have been the right move, given all the circumstances?

I’m also angry because it seems from the numbers presented, the church got royally screwed. If they had to sell, they could have held out for much more. You can’t buy a two story run down house in Crown Heights for $575K. How can anyone justify that price for that enormous building that takes up literally half the block? I can’t help but think that the developer took advantage of a cash strapped group of poor black people who were not real estate savvy, and thought they were making a lot of money. Where were their lawyers? Where was the Community Board? Wasn’t there anyone in their congregation, or friends or family who said, “Whoa, that price is not high enough. Crown Heights is gentrifying and real estate is going up faster than the temperature on a hot day. We need to buy a new church, we have to get more than a piddley $575,000.”

There is some dispute on Brooklynian on what’s going to be developed, due to proposed changes in zoning in western Crown Heights. But that will really just determine how many stories the developer can build. They are still going to get an enormous footprint to work with, and there will be a lot of units in any kind of building they do. Will some of them be affordable? Will some of the parishioners of Charity Baptist be living there? Or will it be another cool luxury condo building marketed towards the “New Crown Heights” that is straining to move east of Franklin Avenue, which is only a block from here? I guess we have no choice but to wait and see. GMAP

Many thanks to the local gentleman who gave us the information about these developments, and steered us to the Brooklynian article. I hope you are reading this.

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