I FIRST DISCOVERED the Flatbush neighborhood a couple of years ago while on an assignment for amNewYork. I walked a grid around Flatbush Avenue, wondering how to describe a neighborhood that on one side is small town USA—generous lawns wreathing gracious Victorian houses—and on the other a patchwork of roti diners, wig shops, dollar stores and storefront churches.
Where Flatbush and Church avenues intersect, I first saw Erasmus High School, one of the famed Snyder schools, renown for its gothic, landmarked campus and its roster of impressive alumni. And known, too, for its long-abandoned clapboard academy in the green center, a building waiting for either redemption or demise.
Farther down the avenue, I came across this marvelous relic: The Loew’s Kings Theater. It rose in the middle of an otherwise undistinguished block, a limestone chunk with carved and crumbling ornament. You couldn’t tell if its final day of business was last week or in the last decade. No passers-by on the sidewalk knew what it was. It was just another piece of derelict junk on the street. I was dying to know what was on the other side of the metal gate that closed it off to the street.
It was three years before I found out. Last week, I toured the inside of the building, built by Rapp and Rapp, the theater starchitects of their time (1929). Closed in 1977, the theater is in partial but not desperate ruin inside. Framed by tattered curtains, the stage is a jumble of broken props and frames. The orchestra is rows upon rows of faded velvet maroon (in its hey day, there were 3,600 seats, including 900 in the balcony). But so much elegance remains while so much has crumbled: a marble water fountain engraved “Drink and be refreshed,” dangling chandeliers, painted murals, working fireplaces in the men’s lounge.
amNewYork featured the theater on a cover story I wrote on the city’s crumbling past, and last week, I finally got to write about the impending restoration, a joint partnership between the city and ACE Theatrical Group, which has similarly restored theaters in the country. Loew’s Kings Theater won’t open to the public until 2014. But the doors are open on the $70 million restoration, which recently started and about which you can read in The Wall Street Journal [story PDF here] [slideshow here].
When curiosity doesn’t kill the cat, it rewards it. In February, I wrote about the beleaguered Erasmus Academy building for the Journal. After years of neglect by the city, the board of education gave its blessing to New York Landmarks Conservancy to pursue funding for restoration. An initial grant has jump-started fundraising and raised the spirits for alumni who have watched their alma mater fall into decay [WSJ slideshow here].