Groucho Marx said, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.” It might be an appropriate dictum for architects contending with client desires, community needs, budget constraints and site limitations. For Jay Valgora, principle at STUDIO V Architecture, a project in Flushing, Queens presented him with these challenges and one more: saving the landmarked interior of the 1929 RKO Keith’s Theater, a former cinema and vaudeville house where Marx performed. If the community board approves the design, Valgora may meet most of the challenges and keep his design principle intact.
“We’re interested in contemporary form and grounding it in history,” Valgora said of the new building.
In this case, historic grounding is better suited to the theater’s interiors as the surrounding buildings are of the twentieth century strip mall variety. However, Valgora pointed out that the building’s location, where Main Street meets Northern Boulevard, has been a commercial crossing since the seventeenth century when the Dutch settled there. The renderings of the seventeen-story multi-use building make it appear as though it would be right at home on the northern corridor of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Missing from the images are details of the grand movie house lobby, which will be exposed to the street through a two-story glass atrium.
courtesy Building Conservation Associates
Like The Pavillion in Brooklyn or the Loews Paradise in the Bronx, the RKO Keith is a grand cinematic confection that eventually succumbed to the multiplex. The legendary theater designer Thomas Lamb created phantasmagorical interiors, which included two and three story spaces connected by grand staircases. Much of the theater fell into disrepair, but its luxurious lobby remained surprisingly unscathed. The Committee to Save RKO Keith’s is said to have located missing decorative fountains at a dentist’s office in New Jersey, in the hopes they could return home, though this intriguing segue to the future could not be confirmed.
Developer Patrick Thompson told The New York Post that the total cost of the project should come in at $160 million. Maintaining the original structure while bringing the square footage up to 314,00 square feet will present a big challenge.
Designers plan to erect a steel cage around the original structure and then insert protective skin. The original façade will then be removed to reveal the interiors for all of Main Street to see, making the old lobby a star. The cage will then support the new structure and the tower’s base will replicate the stage’s proscenium arch. The undulating glass of the new atrium will give a whole new meaning to the term “curtain wall.”
“The central idea is to restore and create something new of our time,” said Valgora.
The reaction from the community has been generally positive, though there are a few issues to iron out. A senior center will weave its way around the space, and Valgor hopes to see restaurant and bar crowds enliven the lobby.
“We still have some work to do,” said Chuck Apelian, chair of Community Board 7. “I’m concerned about the number of units and parking. It went from 200 [units] to 357.”
Apelian said the community was pleased to see the incorporation of the senior center and didn’t seem too concerned about the lack of affordable housing.
“It was never considered,” he said. “There are a lot of economic issues, because of the landmark status. We want the landmark preserved, and there’s only so many dollars.”