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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Bklyn's former Fox Savoy Theatre, it's next familar swan song

I can help but imagine Joni Mitchell serenading this post.

In the days of old, when Brooklyn was the world and Bedford Avenue a rich and mighty vein laden  with auto dealerships at it's center and various lush residential neighborhoods emanating out to the ends of the borough, there stood the Fox Savoy Theatre, as seen in the photo above from July 3rd 1929, looking north, downhill on Bedford Avenue. (Photo by George Mann)

A landmark in Brooklyn and New York history, this is the New York Times announcment of the Fox Savoy's then impending debut:

This is how the former Fox Savoy Theatre looked in late 2012:

Like a lot of things in Brooklyn I've witnessed it for decades. At some point in my childhood, I noticed it was inhabited by a church named "Charity Neighborhood Baptist Cathedral" and that's how it remained, until last year. I didn't notice the sign for the church was gone until I saw the dumpsters parked out front last spring. I've been trying to find out what the history and future of the building is since then. I finally found some history:

From the website, "Cinema"

"The Savoy Theatre was the largest theatre that William Fox ever built in Brooklyn prior to the downtown Fox Theatre. Opening publicity claimed 3,500 seats, but that has been debated ever since. Some industry year books say 2,750, but I would guess more like 3,000. The Savoy Theatre has a very large balcony with minimal space between the rows.
The Savoy Theatre was built at the same time as Fox’s Academy of Music in Manhattan, with Thomas W. Lamb as architect of both. The Savoy Theatre’s auditorium is in the Adam style, with boxed seats adjoining the stage and a shallow dome in the center of the ceiling. It first opened on September 1, 1926, with Fox’s “Fig Leaves” on screen, plus six acts of vaudeville. With program changes twice a week, the Savoy Theatre was considered the Fox circuit’s top Brooklyn showcase until the 1928 opening of the downtown Fox Theatre. After that, it became just another neighborhood movie house, but playing first-run for the area.

After William Fox’s bankruptcy, the Savoy Theatre landed under the Randforce Circuit, which, to signify the theatre’s importance, moved its executive HQ to office space in the building. The Savoy Theatre carried on into the 1960’s, despite all the social turbulence in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area.
Fortunately, it escaped demolition and became the Charity Neighborhood Baptist Church. Except for removal of the marquee and alterations to the entrance, the Savoy Theatre’s interior is virtually intact, though re-painted in whitewash in most areas. Some of the original stage curtains are still hanging, and I’ve been told that old scenic backdrops are still stored in the lofts."

I don't live far from the building, my grandmother once worked in the daycare center that shares the same block, back when the it was called the "Haitian-American Day Care Center". Considering the renaissance of cultural venues reoccurring in Brooklyn today, and with Bedford still easily accessible as a wide two-way street that literally goes from one end of the borough to the other, I presumed upon seeing the church sign was gone, that the building was going to be reborn as a new mixed used venue.

That seemed plausible to me not only for the revitalization of Franklin Avenue a block west, and the increasing rents that signal old businesses being forced out and new ones welcomed two short blocks east on Nostrand, but because also the Loews Kings Theater starting renovations just last year after being a building completely unused, and destroyed by rain and squatters for decades.

Instead it turns out demolition is what is happening.

The photo I took (above) is how it looks today (Jan/2014)

The first of New York City's Fox Theater's and the last one standing will be demolished without much fanfare, it seems. There has been an effort to landmark this and other streets in the western end of Crown Heights but those efforts are still in consideration. This building wasn't fast tracked, it's going to go and leave memory and important questions in it's wake.

Questions like the ones Brownstoner commentator "Melrose Morris" wrote about in May 2013 (which I missed) (
"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.

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."
It seems despite the positive aspects of gentrified Crown Heights, namely an increase in community organizing and activism, no one from the neighborhood or active residents had enough of a relationship with the Charity Neighborhood Baptist Cathedral to be aware they were selling, no, essentially giving the building away. And no one from the Church apparently reached out to neighborhood thus allowed this historic building to be sold for the unfathomable price of less than $600,000.

In my opinion, everyone in Brooklyn who cares to develop over destroying significant history of the City takes a collective "L" for this one.

It's amazing how the bonds of neighborhood and community that were weaken and in some cases broken, back in the 60's, 70's & 80's still resonate today.

Despite all that has been left to ruin or otherwise lost, there are still gems and iconic elements in Brooklyn. I believe we need to be more active unless we want to keep saying goodbye to things that shouldn't go, and singing this song:

"Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot"
-Joni Mitchell

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