Description & Building Alterations
The Yiddish Art Theater was designed for prominent Brooklyn lawyer and Jewish community leader Louis Jaffe. The historic building was constructed as an elaborate, 1,265 seat live theater for the Yiddish Art Theater company, which was directed by Maurice Schwartz. The interior was designed in the Moorish Revival style that was popular in synagogues at the time, and included a forty-foot ornamental ceiling with a spectacular Star of David in the center that is still present today.
The Yiddish Art Theater housed elaborate productions from Maurice Schwartz and his troupe, including The Tenth Commandment in 1928, which featured dances by Michel Fokine and sets by Tony-award-winning Boris Aronson. The theater showcased I.J. Singer’s Yoshe Kalb in 1932. Schwartz’s loyal following and festive, imaginative plays attracted renowned guests such as Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, George Gershwin, and former New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. The building went through several names and incarnations throughout the mid-1900s, including The Stuyvesant Theater, a film exhibition house, and a stint as the East Village landmark The Phoenix Theater. In 1930, the space was occupied by Molly Picon’s Folks Theater, named for Molly Picon, one of the greatest female stars of the Yiddish stage.
At one point during the 20th century, the front portion of the theater was converted into apartments. One of these apartments was home to a progression of gay artists: Jackie Curtis, “superstar” performer in Andy Warhol films; followed by the noted photographer Peter Hujar (from 1973 to 1987), and finally by Hujar’s friend, the artist David Wojnarowicz, who took over his friend’s apartment when Hujar died of AIDS-related complications in 1980. Wojnarowicz lived in the apartment until his death in 1992.
In 1991, the theater was restored and converted into the Village East Cinema, and in 1993 the interior and exterior were designated as landmarks by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Prior to the construction of this building, several row houses were located on this lot. Avid philanthropist John H. Keyser lived in one of these buildings while he established the Strangers’ Hospital, which he financed completely by himself around 1870. A New York Times article describes 183 Second Avenue as “a lovely Italianate home.” A picture from the NYPL archives indicates that this building among others was demolished in 1925 to make room for the Yiddish Art Theater in the heart of what was known as New York City’s Jewish Rialto district. Construction of the new theater began in 1926, and the building served as the Yiddish theater until 1945.
Block : 467 / Lot : 31 / Building Date : 1925-26 / Original Owner : Louis Jaffe / Original Use : Institutional / Original Architect : Harrison Wiseman