Category Archives: Fun Palaces

Montecatini Terme

Montecatini Terme, Italy: Tettuccio Spa

Montecatini Terme, Italy: Tettuccio Spa

I’d never have found my way to Monticatini Terme if I hadn’t booked a Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ holiday [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany] which was based in the excellent Hotel Francia & Quirinale [https://www.franciaequirinale.it/en], providing four-star quality with individuality and amenity, meticulously efficient service, an elegant lobby, a spacious lounge with many settees and a grand piano and an equally spacious restaurant with a separate area for private parties.

Two minutes’ walk from the hotel is the Parco delle Terme, which contains the spa from which the town takes its modern name, strongly reminiscent of Buxton or Harrogate and utterly enjoyable:  https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.termemontecatini.it/&prev=search.  Open courtyards with columned arcades open one into another, with fountains and an apsidal concert stage for music.

Baths on this site are documented back to 1201, and were reported by the Montecatini physician Ugolino Simoni in 1417.  In modern times the spa was developed by Grand Duke Peter Leopold, who sponsored the construction of the Bagno Regio (1773), the Terme Leopoldine (1775) and the Terme Tettuccio (1779).

The heyday of the resort was the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Though some parts are in need of restoration they evoke the time when the composer Verdi lived in the town, with such neighbours as Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Beniamino Gigli and Luigi Pirandello.

A series of elaborate marble counters offers a variety of waters through labelled taps:  Rinfresco, which “promotes the elimination of waste through the renal pathways and restores lost salts in sports training”, was the only water that was actually flowing and for lack of a cup I couldn’t drink any of it.  It wasn’t very warm.  Behind the counters a series of tiled pictures show the ages of man, voluptuously suggesting how water improves health at every age.

I had lunch – smoked salmon and remarkably tasty white bread accompanied by a litre of aqua naturale – in the high, domed, dignified Caffè Le Terme, far too grand to be called a café in any language but Italian.  On a very hot day the air conditioning was natural and effective – huge doors wide open on three sides of the high-ceilinged room.

Elsewhere in the park from the main complex are other spa buildings, the Terme Torretta (1904), the Terme Excelsior (1907) and the Terme Tamerici (1911).

At the edge of the park, I booked a table for dinner at the Profumo Garden Bistrot [https://www.thefork.it/ristorante/profumo-garden-bistrot/307299?cc=18174-54f] and later enjoyed a superlative five-course meal in an open-air setting, as the hot day cooled to warm and the sun dipped lower in the sky.  Perfect.

Opera on tap

Opera House, Royal Tunbridge Wells

Tunbridge Wells was a staid and respectable spa town, not over-supplied with theatres in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Mrs Sarah Baker’s Tunbridge Wells Theatre, opened in the Pantiles in 1802, was used as a theatre for about fifty years and then converted into a Corn Exchange which still exists.

In the decade when the borough became Royal Tunbridge Wells, thanks to the merry monarch, King Edward VII, the Opera House was promoted by Mr J Jarvis and opened in 1902.

It was designed by John Priestly Briggs (1869-1944) who among much else built the Grand Theatre, Doncaster (1899, with J W Chapman).

The splendid Baroque exterior includes a range of shops on three sides and a balcony above the entrance leading out of the dress circle bar.  The central dome was originally surmounted by a nude statue of Mercury which was removed after the First World War.

The intimate auditorium, originally seating 1,100, is lavishly decorated with a dress circle and  balcony , and a central saucer dome above the stalls.

The proscenium is 28 feet wide and the stage is 32 feet deep, with a grid 44 feet high.  The proscenium arch has brackets in the upper corners and is surmounted by relief figures representing Music and Drama.

The eccentric local landowner John Christie (1882-1962) reopened the Opera House as a cinema in 1925.  He had taken over the organ-builder William Hill & Son & Norman & Beard Ltd in 1923, and installed an ambitious five-manual organ with pipework located on stage and the console in the enlarged orchestra pit.

He produced a wide range of shows, including musical comedy and Gilbert & Sullivan, before he set up his own celebrated opera house on his nearby estate at Glyndebourne:  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/opera/what-to-see/glyndebourne-the-love-story-that-started-it-all.

The organ was sold to a New Zealand buyer in 1929 but the stage remained in use for annual amateur operatic performances from 1932 to 1966.

The history of the building after John Christie’s time is conventional – refurbished in 1931, bomb-damaged but repaired and reopened in 1949, taken over by Essoldo in 1954.

In 1966 the local council refused a bingo licence and listed it Grade II.  After a couple of years of controversy, the final film-show (Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons) took place on February 3rd 1968, and the Opera House reopened as a bingo club in July the same year.

The bingo club, successively operated by Essoldo, Ladbrokes, Top Rank and Cascade, eventually closed in 1995, and after a public campaign to prevent demolition, the Opera House was taken over by the J D Wetherspoon chain in 1996 and adapted as a public house that can be used for opera one day each year.

J D Wetherspoon has an outstanding reputation for transforming redundant historic buildings into enjoyable places to eat and drink.  By combining business acumen with sensitivity to the localities in which it trades, the company enables heritage structures to earn their keep and bring enjoyment to customers.

At the Tunbridge Wells Opera House the seating remains in the dress circle and, unused, in the gallery.  The boxes are practical but cramped, and the stained glass panels in the doors to each box and the vestibule at the back of the dress circle are restored.  The stage house retains its fly floors and bridge, and the original lighting board and the counterweights for the house tabs remain in situ.

Though there’s nothing scheduled in the calendar at the time of writing, it’s easy to set up an alert for the next Tunbridge Wells opera experience:  https://www.ents24.com/tunbridge-wells-events/wetherspoon-opera-house-pub.

And in the meantime, any day of the week, breakfast to suppertime, anyone can walk in and enjoy a complete Edwardian auditorium with good pub food, beverages and a wide range of drinks at very reasonable prices.

The Church of King Charles the Martyr, Royal Tunbridge Wells

Church of King Charles the Martyr, Royal Tunbridge Wells

The site of Tunbridge Wells was empty fields until Dudley, Lord North (1581-1666) came upon a chalybeate (iron-bearing) spring in 1609 while staying at a lodge in nearby Eridge for his health.

He publicised the therapeutic powers of the waters –

These waters youth in age renew,

Strength to the weak and sickly add,

Give the pale cheek a rosy hue

And cheerful spirits to the sad.

– and attracted royal approval when Queen Henrietta Maria, consort of King Charles I visited in 1630.

The Lord of the Manor, Donagh MacCarthy, 1st Earl of Clancarty (1594–1665), enclosed the spring and built a meeting hall “to shelter the dippers in wet weather”.  Nevertheless, when Queen Catherine of Braganza took the waters in 1664, her court was accommodated in tents.

The spa’s first assembly room was in fact the Church of King Charles the Martyr, built as a brick chapel of ease in 1684.  Its unusual dedication memorialised the executed monarch, whose death was until 1859 remembered as an Anglican feast-day on the anniversary of his execution, January 30th.

The land for the church was given by Viscountess Purbeck and the fundraising and subsequent building programme was supervised by the MP and entrepreneur Thomas Neale (1641–1699) as part of his nearby development of shops and inns.

The fine plaster ceiling of five domes was installed in 1678 by John Wetherell, who had worked for Sir Christopher Wren at Greenwich.  Five years later a further dome was installed to the north, opposite the original doorway.

This building quickly became too small for either an assembly or its congregation.

In 1688-1690 Henry Doogood, Sir Christopher Wren’s chief plasterer, took down the west wall, replacing it with the tall columns that still stand in the middle of the nave, and doubled the size of the interior, duplicating the plaster ceiling with, as Pevsner remarks, “more bravura” than the original.

Strict social separation was maintained between the high-status worshippers in the body of the church and the tradespeople and servants above:  the oak-panelled seventeenth-century galleries were originally accessible only from outside.

Ironically, when the then Princess Victoria, aged sixteen, with her mother, the Duchess of Kent, visited in 1835 she sat in the north balcony which was at the time close to the pulpit and the altar.

St Charles the Martyr became a parish church – with an unusually small area, 65 acres, much of it common land,– only in 1889, when for the first time the interior was oriented to the east by the architect Ewan Christian.

The three-decker pulpit was removed and the seating reversed to face the present-day chancel, removing the anomaly that the communion table stood at the side of the church, out of sight of most worshippers.

In this refurbishment the Credo and Paternoster boards by William Cheere were brought from the church of All Hallows, Bread Street, in the City of London (built 1681-84;  demolished 1878).

The Church of King Charles the Martyr is a highly unusual building and well worth a visit.  The greeters are particularly welcoming:  http://kcmtw.or

Another gap in the Promenade

Imperial Hotel, Douglas, Isle of Man:  demolition, August 31st 2018

Imperial Hotel, Douglas, Isle of Man: demolition, August 31st 2018

Photo:  John Binns

Just because a building doesn’t reach the criteria for listing and protecting as a historic structure doesn’t mean it isn’t worth saving.

Nearly a year ago I wrote about to the loss of the Tudno Castle Hotel, Llandudno, which, though listed Grade II, was completely demolished after an inadequate survey failed to show that a scheme to retain only the façade was in fact impractical:  http://www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=5311.

More recently, my Isle of Man friend John spotted the demise of the long-derelict Imperial Hotel on Douglas Promenade at the end of August 2018:  http://www.iomtoday.co.im/article.cfm?id=38524&headline=The%20end%20is%20nigh%20for%20Victorian%20hotel&sectionIs=news&searchyear=2018.

The Imperial dates from 1891, one of a number of imposing sea-front hotels by the Manx property-developer Alexander Gill (c1852-1919).  Others still remaining include the Hydro (1910) and the Empress Hotel.

The Imperial closed in 2006, and remained unused except as an occasional training site for police sniffer dogs.

Douglas Promenade is actually a series of promenades, built 1875-1890 to take advantage of the broad sweep of Douglas Bay by providing building land for the island’s growing tourist industry.

The whole extent of the Promenade is designated as a conservation area:  https://www.gov.im/media/633077/douglaspromsconsarea.pdf.

It’s a magnificent sight despite regrettable gaps where ungracious modern structures have replaced Victorian originals such as the Palace Pavilion & Opera House (1889 onwards, demolished 1965 and 1994), the Promenade Methodist Church (1876, demolished 1975) and the Villiers Hotel (1879, demolished 1995).

The late Gavin Stamp wrote about the insidious threats to the island’s built heritage when the Villiers Hotel was at risk in 1994:  https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/news/the-isle-of-mammon-is-ripping-out-its-soul-the-manx-governments-indifference-nay-hostility-to-1448732.html.

The Isle of Man’s parliament, Tynwald, has its own system of Registered Buildings, without the grading that applies in the UK.  Manx registrations began in 1983, and so far cover only 275 buildings, with another 250 under consideration.

Consideration of extending the list has not been energetic.  According to Wikipedia – there seems to be no online version of the official list – there were four registrations in 2014, one in 2015, four in 2017 and so far only two in 2018:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Registered_Buildings_of_the_Isle_of_Man.

An Alliance for Building Conservation (ABC) was formed in 2016 to co-ordinate campaigning to protect the island’s built heritage:  http://www.abc.org.im/index.php/abc-background-and-history.

One of the Alliance’s achievements has been a regular series of articles in the Isle of Man Examiner highlighting causes for conservationist concern.  A recent article reviews the glacial process of changing Manx attitudes to historical conservation:  http://www.iomtoday.co.im/article.cfm?id=40533.

Because it takes so long to list worthwhile Manx buildings, it’s no surprise that less distinguished places like the Imperial Hotel come to grief, yet their group value is invaluable, and when the gaps they leave are replaced by mediocre substitutes, or left empty, the effect diminishes the whole.

Though the Isle of Man is small in extent, it’s rich in history.

In many places in the UK and across the world the historic heritage is seen to be good for the local economy.

Unfortunately, in the Isle of Man investment and commercial development tend to be at odds with the good of the environment.

Bognor Pier

Bognor Pier

Bognor Pier

King George V famously didn’t like Bognor, where he was sent to recuperate after surgery in 1929.  After his stay at Craigwell House in nearby Aldwick, he received a petition to grant the town the suffix “Regis” – literally, “of the King”.  I can’t possibly tell the story better than Wikipedia, citing Antonia Fraser’s The house of Windsor (2000):

The petition was presented to Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Private Secretary, who in turn delivered it to the King.  King George supposedly replied, “Oh, bugger Bognor.”  Lord Stamfordham then went back to the petitioners and told them, “the King has been graciously pleased to grant your request.”

Like many small seaside resorts at the ends of branch lines, Bognor is a rather sad place today, but it has a proud history as a genteel place to relax, founded in the late eighteenth century by the local landowner Sir Richard Hotham, and more energetically developed after the arrival of the branch railway in 1864.

It’s hardly an accident that Bognor Pier was begun in the same year, designed by Sir Charles Fox and his cousin J W Wilson and opened in 1865.  Originally a thousand feet long, it cost £5,000, but was subsequently bought for £1,200 by the Local Board in 1876.

The Board’s successor, Bognor Urban District Council, were glad to offload it to a private operator, who spent £30,000 dealing with dilapidations and constructing an entertainment complex at the shore end, comprising a theatre with a fly-tower, a picture theatre, an amusement arcade and a roof-garden restaurant, all of which opened in 1912.

During the Second World War, from 1943-45, the pier was HMS St Barbara, a naval observation station armed with anti-aircraft guns.

Its history became vexed from the 1960s onwards:  repeated changes of ownership meant that maintenance failed to keep up with onslaughts of storm damage.

Though it’s listed Grade II and the pier head building remains in part, only 350 feet of the pier itself survives, and repeated attempts to attract lottery funding for a major restoration have fallen apart.

Most recently, the energetic friends’ group, Bognor Pier Trust, learned that the current owners, Bognor Pier Leisure Ltd (BPLL), would not support a £5,000,000 lottery bid but were committed to maintaining the structure:  https://www.bognor.co.uk/news/future-of-bognor-pier-plunged-into-uncertainty-after-owners-withdraw-support-for-5m-funding-bid-1-7653934 and http://www.bognorpiertrust.co.uk/news-articles/no-lottery-bid-bognor-regis-pier.

The Trust has made a dignified decision to concentrate on other conservation projects in the town, and to remain ready to purchase the Pier if the current owners decide to sell.

Where that leaves the long-term future of the Pier itself remains to be seen.

Judge not…

23 Forman Street, Nottingham

23 Forman Street, Nottingham

Photo:  Harriet Buckthorp

Diners at the Foreman Street, Nottingham, branch of Prezzo [https://www.prezzorestaurants.co.uk/restaurant/nottingham-forman-street/?s=Nottingham%20NG5,%20United%20Kingdom&lng=-1.1390802999999323&lat=53.00821670000001&f] are mostly unaware of the history of the site.

In the late nineteenth century 23 Foreman Street was a well-known brothel, distinguished as the scene of the demise of Sir Charles Henry Watkin Williams, a High Court judge who, according to a pointedly satirical memorial card, “departed this life suddenly at Mrs Salmands” on the evening of July 17th 1884 aged 55.

After dinner at the Judge’s Lodgings he had gone to visit a young lady called Nellie Banks at Mrs Salmands.  There is a factual account in Reynolds’s News, July 27th 1884.

The gangster ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, in his compendium of criminality, Mad Frank’s Britain (Random House 2012), p 107, felicitously describes what happened:  “the old gentleman gave a sort of grunt and she thought he’d come, but he’d gone”.

By the time the police returned Sir Watkin Williams’ corpse to the Judge’s Lodgings too many people knew what had happened for the story to be concealed.

The borough coroner, Mr Arthur Brown, was clearly under considerable pressure to limit his inquiries, and he had to lean hard to make the inquest jury fulfil their oath to establish “when, where, how, and by what means” the judge had met his death.

It appeared that Sir Watkin suffered from aneurism of the aorta and, according to his doctor’s recommendation, he really should have been more careful.

Reynolds’s News reported the affair with a degree of circumspection, under a headline “DISCREDITABLE DEATH OF A JUDGE”, in an article more than a column in length that invited readers to use their imaginations.

The memorial-card broadsheet was altogether more succinct:

…in eight feet deep of solid earth

Sir Watkin Williams lies.

He lost his breath,

which caused his death,

‘twixt Nellie Blankey’s thighs.

Nellie Banks was an enterprising young lady.  My friend Stewart tracked her down in the Boston Guardian dated August 2nd 1884 where her name is meticulously rendered in inverted commas:

She was the housekeeper of a farmer at Butterwick who, in the early part of this year, absconded with a large sum of money and with [the] young lady in question made a trip to Paris.  He was on his return to this country apprehended as a fraudulent bankrupt aboard an Inman Line steamer as he and “Nelly” were about to emigrate to America.

She is described as aged 22, pale and slender and about five feet high.  She would have thrived in an age of reality TV and social media.

Nothing much remains of Mrs Salmand’s premises, but the story gives an entertaining twist to dining at Prezzo.

Hotel Adlon

Hotel Adlon Kempinski, Unter den Linden, Berlin

Hotel Adlon Kempinski, Unter den Linden, Berlin

I went into the Hotel Adlon Kempinski Berlin [https://www.kempinski.com/en/berlin/hotel-adlon] to use the restroom and stayed in the elegant lobby for a cup of coffee.

The atmosphere is all you’d expect of a five-star hotel – comfortable armchairs, attentive staff, piano music.  It’s obviously a modern building, but the saucer-dome with stained glass above the lobby is a strong hint that it harks back to an elegant predecessor:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/troymcmullen/2017/07/25/an-updated-hotel-adlon-kempinski-adds-glamour-to-its-history/#3ce177ae74db.

Indeed, the original Hotel Adlon was opened in 1907 after its proprietor, the restaurateur Lorenz Adlon (1849-1927), secured the backing of Kaiser Wilhelm II to bring to Berlin a rival to the new Ritz hotels of London and Paris.

The site Adlon chose was next to the Brandenburg Gate, surrounded by the British, French and American embassies and close to major German government buildings.

The Kaiser and his government contracted the hotel to reserve accommodation for visiting dignitaries, and the place became a magnet for the powerful, rich and famous.

Adlon was understandably a staunch monarchist, and after the Kaiser was deposed in 1918 refused to acknowledge that the central arch of the Brandenburg Gate was available to anyone other than royalty.  Twice he crossed the archway without looking and was knocked down:  the first time, in 1918, he survived;  the second time, in 1927, he was killed.

The hotel survived the Second World War, only to be burnt down by Red Army soldiers raiding the wine cellars on May 2nd 1945.  The owner-manager Louis Adlon, Lorenz’s son, was apparently shot by Soviet troops who were misled by a servant addressing him as “Generaldirektor“ into thinking him a military general.

The ruined building stood until 1952, with a makeshift hotel running in the former service wing until the 1970s.  This remnant was itself demolished in 1984.

The replacement hotel, which makes no attempt to reproduce the original but shares its style and proportions, opened in 1997:  http://www.ibtmworld.com/__novadocuments/381845?v=636390059715670000.

It was the location of the singer Michael Jackson’s ill-advised dangling his son out of an upstairs window in 2002.

A cup of coffee costs €7.50.  That includes a free pastry the size of a thimble.

Gap in the townscape

Tudno Castle Hotel, Llandudno

Tudno Castle Hotel, Llandudno

When I visited the Llandudno Arts Society to give a lecture recently, my host Mark Esplen drove me round the town to show me recent developments in which he felt pride, such as the refurbished Railway Station (completed 2014) and the Lifeboat Station (2017).

Driving past the former Tudno Castle Hotel, he remarked that it was about to be demolished after unsuccessful attempts at redevelopment.

There’s more to the story than meets the eye, as I discover from a recent Victorian Society bulletin.

This Grade II listed building, which was originally two hotels, the Tudno Castle and the Temperance, seems not to be datable, and is not credited to a named architect, but it was obviously an integral component of the development of Llandudno as a resort, occupying a prominent site between Mostyn Broadway and Conway Street, closing the vista at the south end of the principal shopping thoroughfare, Mostyn Street.

The reasons for listing, last revised in 2001, are vague:  “C19 hotel retaining its character on important free-standing site.  Group value with adjacent listed buildings”.  It seems nobody took the trouble to recognise its history or its townscape value.

In 2014 planning permission was given, against the strong objections of the Victorian Society, for a retail development and a Premier Inn hotel, retaining only the façade of the building.

The interior, when surveyed by Archaeology Wales, was a mess and had clearly seen better days, but it was intact and the better parts could have been incorporated into a sensitive redevelopment:   http://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/inside-tudno-castle-llandudno-demolish-13468477.

There is a slide-show of the April demolition which was intended to leave the façade supported by scaffolding at http://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/plan-submitted-tear-down-grade-13467581, along with a depressing sketch of the limp proposed replacement.

When demolition began, the contractors noticed “historical movement” [http://demolishdismantle.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/tudno-castle-hotel-demolished-due-to.html] which made it impossible to support the façade for retention.

This euphemism turns out to cover a failure to realise, when the 2014 application was processed, that the walls were not ashlar but rubble, and the Victorian Society is questioning how the developer and the authorities can have failed to survey the building adequately before making their proposal.

Anna Shelley, Conservation Adviser at the Victorian Society, is clearly spitting tacks:  “The complete demolition of the Tudno Castle Hotel was entirely avoidable, and the plans could have been revised and reconsidered at various stages in the assessment process.  All those responsible – particularly developer and Local Authority – should take a good hard look at themselves. How has this been allowed to happen?” [http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/news/irresponsible-development-razes-tudno-castle-hotel]

Primarily as a result of watchful care over decades by the landowner, the Mostyn Estate, Llandudno has remained one of the finest and most intact of British seaside resorts, and now its streetscape has a regrettable and unnecessary gap.

Other local authorities have shown a more muscular response to ostensibly fortuitous demolitions:  http://www.eastlondonadvertiser.co.uk/news/politics/illegally-demolished-historic-cottages-must-be-rebuilt-brick-by-brick-tower-hamlets-council-orders-1-5209885?utm_source=Twitter&utm_medium=Social_Icon&utm_campaign=in_article_social_icons.

The replacement building had better be good.

Tootling a tune or two

Former Strand Cinema, Douglas, Isle of Man

Former Strand Cinema, Douglas, Isle of Man

Walking through the crowds of shoppers on Strand Street in Douglas, Isle of Man, I spotted an opportunity to photograph the surviving façade of the Strand Cinema.

My friend John, who’s lived on the island for over ten years, had never noticed it before but immediately clocked, from his intimate knowledge of Manx organs, that it was connected with a celebrated cinema organist, Dr George Tootell (1886-1969).

The Strand Cinema was one of seven Douglas cinemas that made their profits from the holiday trade rather than the permanent population.  It opened in 1913, and went over to bingo sometime in the late 1960s.

The Strand has an attractive white faience façade, and when the auditorium was demolished in 1998 the frontage was retained and restored.

Dr Tootell’s connection is interesting.  He had begun his professional career as a church organist and music master in schools in north-west England, and worked in North America launching and demonstrating new organs for the Wurlitzer Company.

He held successive posts as a resident organist in British cinemas and wrote an opinionated but practical manual for theatre organists, How to Play the Cinema Organ:  a practical book by a practical player (1927).

He had a particular connection with the Jardine organ-building company of Manchester [http://www.organbuilders.co.uk], who installed several instruments to his design when he was resident at the Palace Cinema, Accrington, and at the Kingsway and Stoll Picture Theatres in central London.

In Douglas, Jardines constructed the organ at St George’s parish church where Dr Tootell was resident organist.

It was not, it seems, one of their more fortunate pieces of work:  a Manx historian describes it as “a neatly packaged mountain of mechanism and pipework which was doomed as a musical instrument.” [http://www.isle-of-man.com/manxnotebook/music/organs.htm].

The most ingenious feature of this installation was the side door which allowed Dr Tootell to leave St George’s before the end of the service to fulfil his contract to play at the Strand Cinema while his deputy played the final hymn and voluntary.

No-one seems to have raised the slightest objection – or indeed to have noticed – the unobtrusive way in which Dr Tootell contrived to bat for both sides.

Audubon Ballroom

Audubon Ballroom, Washington Heights, New York City

Audubon Ballroom, Washington Heights, New York City

A couple of years ago I revisited one of my earliest New York City experiences – taking the M4 bus from midtown Madison Avenue all the way to The Cloisters.

As the bus turned off Broadway into 165th Street I noticed on the street corner an elaborate building which I judged to have a cast-iron façade.

When I went back later, closer inspection showed that most of the elaborate external decoration is brightly coloured, crisply modelled faience.

The entrance is dominated by an elaborate relief of the prow of a ship, apparently representing Jason and the Argonauts, with an oversized figurehead depicting the god Neptune, and along the entire façade are the heads of brown foxes.

This was the Audubon Theater and Ballroom, built in 1912 by the greatest American theatre-architect of his day, Thomas W Lamb (1871–1942), for the film distributor William Fox (1879-1952), who later gave his name to the 20th Century Fox film studio.

The connection with Fox explains the foxes, but I’ve no idea why Neptune dominates the entrance nor, indeed, whether the building is named after the ornithologist John James Audubon (1785-1851).

The splendid auditorium seated 2,500 and was used for both film and vaudeville.  The basement was used as a synagogue, Emez Wozedek, from 1939 to 1983, and the second-floor ballroom became a venue for trade union and other political meetings as well as dances and dinners.

It was in the ballroom on February 21st 1965 that the human rights activist Malcolm X was assassinated at the age of 39:  http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/malcolm-x-assassinated-1965-article-1.2111105.

After a foreclosure in 1967 the ballroom was used as a Hispanic cinema, the San Juan Theater, until 1980.

The building then became derelict and the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center took it over and proceeded to clear the site to make way for a purpose-designed medical research centre.

The Columbia project created controversy between advocates of regeneration in an area of deprivation and guardians of political and cultural heritage:  [http://www.nytimes.com/1990/05/03/nyregion/a-proposal-to-raze-audubon-ballroom-causes-controversy.html and http://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/23/arts/architecture-view-once-and-future-audubon.html]

It seems that the Audubon Theater and Ballroom is threaded into so much twentieth-century New York cultural and political history.  The erotic filmmaker Radley Metzger (1929-2017) had a strong affection for the Audobon Theater, and named his distribution company after it:  http://www.therialtoreport.com/2017/04/06/audubon-ballroom.

Political pressure from the Washington Heights community, and particularly from the family of Malcolm X, led by his widow, Dr Betty Shabazz, eventually ensured that half the ballroom and much of the façade were retained:  http://rinaldinyc.com/portfolio-item/3920.

It’s an awkward compromise, that speaks of cultural conflicts that go back to the time of the civil rights campaigns that Malcolm X fought for.

His third-eldest daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, remarked when her father’s memorial was opened in the building, “It’s hard for people to come back to a place where he was assassinated…But we’ve taken a tragic place and turned it into something beautiful.” [http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/21/nyregion/remembering-malcolm-x-in-the-place-where-he-fell.html].

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.