New York City Center

New York City Center
New York City Center Logo

New York City Center (previously known as City Center of Music and Drama[1] and also known as New York City Center 55th Street Theater,[2]) is a 2,750-seat Moorish Revival theater located at 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in Manhattan, New York City. It is one block south of Carnegie Hall. City Center is especially known as a performing home for several major dance companies as well as the Encores! musical theater series and most recently the Fall for Dance Festival. The facility houses the 2,753 seat main stage, two smaller theatres, four studios and a 12-story office tower.[3]


Early history

Mecca Temple
Early Postcard of the Mecca Temple, New York City
New York City Center is located in New York City
Location: 131 N. 55th St., New York, New York
Coordinates: 40°45′50″N 73°58′48″W / 40.76389°N 73.98°W / 40.76389; -73.98Coordinates: 40°45′50″N 73°58′48″W / 40.76389°N 73.98°W / 40.76389; -73.98
Area: less than one acre
Built: 1922
Architect: Knowles,Harry Percy
Architectural style: Moorish
Governing body: Local
NRHP Reference#: 84002788[4]
Added to NRHP: September 07, 1984

The New York City Center, built in 1923, was designed by architect Harry P. Knowles and the firm of Clinton & Russell,[2] and was originally called the Mecca Temple, by the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, more commonly known as Shriners. The Shriners had previously held their meetings at Carnegie Hall. According to Broadway lore, Carnegie Hall management was disturbed by the amount of cigar smoke generated during Shriners meetings and evicted them.[citation needed] Although the Shriners owned a clubhouse at 107 West 45th Street, large meetings had earlier been held in Carnegie Hall and in the concert hall of Madison Square Garden[5] (the 1890 Stanford White building).


In 1921, Mecca Temple bought the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation movie studio site from Yale University for $400,000.[6] The cornerstone (visible today on West 56th Street) was laid on December 13, 1923 by Judge Arthur S. Tompkins,[7] Grand Master of Masons in NY State. The dedication ceremony took place onstage, December 29, 1924, with the invocation offered by Episcopal Bishop William T. Manning.[8] The first public musical concert took place late the next year, by John Philip Sousa's (a Mason) band, with Walter Damrosch and Willem Mengelberg among the audience.[9]


The building's design is Neo-Moorish and features elaborate interior and exterior polychromed tile work, murals, and a recently restored terra cotta tiled rooftop dome. The 102-foot (31 m) wide, 54-foot (16 m) tall dome is covered with more than 28,000 individual tiles. The building was designed by architects Harry P. Knowles (a Master Mason), who died before its completion, and Clinton & Russell. The auditorium and three Masonic lodge rooms included four M.P. Moller pipe organs.

Bond issue

1922 Mecca Temple (NY, NY, U.S.A.) $100, 20-year, 5% construction bond, top half

The pictured bond was issued for the construction of the building. The elaborate engraving is typical of certificated bonds, in this case using the fraternal organization's logo, rather than neoclassical human figures, idealized versions of the corporation's business, or architectural elements, all common decorations on bonds. Coupons from this bond can be seen under Coupon. The bond and the coupons have no economic value today because the corporation became insolvent within a few years of the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

Home for the performing arts

After the financial crash of 1929 the Mecca Shriners were unable to pay the taxes on the building and it became city property.By the early 1940s, the building was slated for demolition when New York City Council President Newbold Morris and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia decided to convert the building into a home for the performing arts. On December 11, 1943, with publicist and future producer Jean Dalrymple in charge as the volunteer director of public relations, the New York City Center of Music and Drama opened its doors with a concert by the New York Philharmonic. The Star Spangled Banner was conducted that evening by none other than Mayor La Guardia.

1962 City Center Playbill showing building façade.

Each season, from the 1940s through the 1960s, City Center presented numerous music and theatrical events with many renowned performers appearing there. Helen Hayes, Gwen Verdon, Charlton Heston, Celeste Holm, Marcel Marceau, Bob Fosse, Tallulah Bankhead, Vincent Price, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn and Uta Hagen have all graced the City Center stage. The center was also famous as an inexpensive venue for revivals of dozens of classic and then-recent Broadway musicals, among them Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, and Show Boat.

One of the first dance companies to perform regularly there was the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, from 1944 to 1948. New York City Center was home to the New York City Opera (1944–1964) and the New York City Ballet (1948–1966). With the 1960s construction of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, City Center Theater lost New York City Opera and New York City Ballet, and once again faced demolition. After Newbold Morris retired, Morton Baum, Chairman of the Finance Committee of the Board led City Center. With the assistance of Lincoln Center, NYCB and NYCO were organized into membership corporations with "City Center of Music and Drama" as the sole member. "CCMD" leased the New York State Theater from Lincoln Center, which leased it from the City of New York.

Since the departure of the opera and ballet companies from the 55th Street building, the corporate name City Center of Music and Drama has referred to the umbrella organization for those Lincoln Center companies.

After the shift, the City Center theater on 55th was reorganized as The City Center 55th Street Theater Foundation, under Howard M. Squadron, and the building given landmark status.*

In 1966, the Robert Joffrey Ballet, became a resident dance company, even changing its company name to "City Center Joffrey Ballet." The Joffrey remained at City Center until 1982. "In its brief heyday, the Joffrey danced two six-week seasons at City Center each year."[10]

In 1984, the Manhattan Theatre Club made New York City Center's lower level (originally a 136'x96' banquet hall) their home. The Manhattan Theater Club performance space comprises a 299-seat theater and a 150-seat theater. Later in the 1980s, the main stage was extensively renovated in connection with the adjacent construction of the high-rise mixed-use building, Cityspire: "To complete the deal, Eichner Properties agreed to contribute $3 million to the City Opera and $3 million to the City Ballet, which covered the purchase of the air rights ... and to spend $5.5 million to renovate the theater in exchange for the 20 percent space bonus."[11] The renovations were designed by the architect Bernard Rothzeid.[2]

The Present

Interior view
Detail of the ceiling with one of the lights and arabesque motifs
View of the entrance area with tiles as it appeared in 2010. Renovation work will add a glass awning

In 1994, New York City Center launched its first Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert productions. The popular series, which continues to this day, spawned the Broadway revivals of Chicago, Wonderful Town, The Apple Tree, Gypsy (2008), and Finian's Rainbow. Those Broadway productions were produced independently of City Center, but with many of the artists and creators of the Encores! performances.

Today, New York City Center is the New York performance home to Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Eifman Ballet of Saint Petersburg, the Martha Graham Dance Company and The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, to name a few.

In 2000, the American Theatre Wing presented a Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre award to City Center for the Encores! series.

In 2004, New York City Center began the annual Fall for Dance Festival which featured 30 dance companies in six performances. In 2005, "Fall for Dance" again showcased 30 dance companies, five performing at each of the six nights of the festival. In 2006, the Festival was expanded to ten performances, with four of the six programs being repeated.

Renovation Project

In 2010, City Center started a $75 million project to renovate its landmark building. The design will be managed by Polshek Partnership Architects and will include improved sightlines, improved seating and a new canopy as well as restoration of historical elements such as mosaic walls, arabesque ceilings and the original box-office lobby. The construction work will occur from April to September, 2010 and from mid-March to October 2011 completion.[3]


  1. ^ Tischler, Barabara L. (1995). "City Center of Music and Drama". In Kenneth T. Jackson. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT & London & New York: Yale University Press & The New-York Historical Society. pp. 228. ISBN 0-300-05536-6. 
  2. ^ a b c White, Norval & Willensky, Elliot; AIA Guide to New York City, 4th Edition; New York Chapter, American Institute of Architects; Crown Publishers/Random House. 2000. ISBN 0-8129-31069-8; ISBN 0-8129-3107-6. p.267.
  3. ^ a b New York Times, March 17, 2010, pg C1, "City Center Is to Start Renovations", by Robin Pogrebin
  4. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13. 
  5. ^ *"Shriners Plan Own Home", The New York Times, June 15, 1911
  6. ^ *"Shriners Here Plan $2,000,000 Mosque", The New York Times, December 15, 1921
  7. ^ *"Shriners at Site of New Mosque", The New York Times, December 14, 1923
  8. ^ *"Shriners Dedicate Mecca's New Home", The New York Times, December 30, 1924
  9. ^ *"Sousa Opens New Mecca Temple Hall", The New York Times, October 12, 1925
  10. ^ Barnes, Clive (May 1996). "A phoenix called Joffrey". Dance Magazine. Retrieved 2006-10-25. 
  11. ^ *The New York Times, February 21, 1986 (Scardino, Albert)


  • Botto, Louis. Playbill: At This Theatre (Applause Books, 2002) (ISBN 1-55783-566-7)
  • Dalrymple, Jean. From the Last Row (James T. White & Company, 1975)
  • Doeser, Linda. Ballet and Dance: The World's Major Companies (St. Martin's Press, 1977) (ISBN 0-312-06599-X)
  • Kirstein, Lincoln. Thirty Years: The New York City Ballet (Knopf, 1978) (ISBN 0-394-50257-4)
  • Moore, William D. Masonic Temples: Freemasonry, Ritual Architecture, and Masculine Archetypes. (University of Tennessee Press, 2006) (ISBN 1572334967)
  • The New York Times, November 17, 1998.
  • The New York Times, October 7, 1990 (Dunlap, David W.).
  • The New York Times, December 17, 1995 (Lambert, Bruce).
  • The New York Times, August 13, 1997 (Dunlap, David W.).
  • The New York Times, April 11, 1999 (Gray, Christopher).
  • The American Architect, February 25, 1925. (periodical)

External links

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