Before & After: Grand Opera House at 23rd & 8th

A rather unassuming building now occupies the Northwest corner of 23rd Street at 8th Avenue. Before 1868, the lot was part of Clement Clarke Moore’s estate “Chelsea,” whose name has endured on the neighborhood which was once his rolling farm fields and orchards (He also wrote “Twas the Night Before Christmas”). This particular lot was purchased directly from Moore, shortly before his death, by upwardly-aspiring German immigrant Samuel Pike. A lover of opera, he had previously constructed an opera house in his hometown of Cincinnati in 1859, but after it burned in the great fire there of 1866, he opened this newer, grander version, in Manhattan in 1868. But his new hall was unable to lure New York’s elite northward from the 1854 Academy of Music on 14th Street, which itself had recently re-opened after a devastating fire. Within a year, Pike sold his interest in the opera house to now-infamous robber-barons of the gilded age, Jim Fisk and Jay Gould. Controversial figures with close ties to corruptmayor Boss Tweed, Fisk and Gould would use their powerful connections to raise the opera house’s profile and thus increase profits. Their 1869 attempt to corner the market in gold led to widespread panic (Black Friday of 1869) in the financial markets, and forced them to seek shelter in the opera house for several days as a mob gathered against them. The pair kept offices above the theater, and Fiskeven went so far as to keep his actress-mistress installed in an apartment next door. In 1872, however, another jealous lover of hers would murder Fisk at the Grand Central Hotel, leading to a scandalous murder trial and a wildly crowded state funeral in the lobby of the opera house. The Grand Opera was transformed into a vaudeville theater in 1884, and Fisk’s business partner Gould and his heirs would maintain ownership of the building until 1922, when it was sold to a real estate investor. Rumors circulated in 1937 that the building would be demolished, but it was instead picked up by the Radio-Keith-Orpheum company and transformed into the RKO 23rd Street Theatre. It operated thusly until June of 1960, when it was shuttered once more. Its final double-feature was “South Pacific” and “Fabulous Las Vegas.”

NYT 6 30 1960

NY Times, June 30, 1960

Two weeks later, the building was gutted by fire and subsequently demolished. In addition, most of the rest of its block and the 5 blocks north of it would be razed to make way for a 2,800-apartment housing complex under the banner of “urban renewal.” Today, an uninspiring strip mall occupies the space which once held the Grand Opera House. Almost no sign remains of the corner’s former glory. But you’re welcometo go into Dallas BBQ and order a basket of ribs and try to imagine what once was.

23rd and 8th Ave 1935 2011

At left, the Grand Opera House as it appeared in 1935. At right, the same view today. The opera is gone, along with the row houses to the right of it. The bowling alley in the foreground is now a gym with a GAP store beneath it. And the brooding towers of a public housing project loom over everything in the background. (1935 photo from NYPL Digital Gallery; 2011 photo from Google Maps)

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About keithyorkcity

Name: Keith Age: 20-something Location: New York Passion: History You'll find a million blogs like mine, but mine is better.
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5 Responses to Before & After: Grand Opera House at 23rd & 8th

  1. dido says:

    Just found your blog. Great in depth stories about our city. I grew up in what became SoHo and remember having to steer clear of welfare hotels like the Broadway Central growing up. I also remember going over to look at it when it fell down: couldn’t believe such a thing could happen. We later moved uptown to the old Coogan loft building and I would avoid the Martinique and the many others like it in the area. It was always heartbreaking because SRO’s also housed old poor folks who were so vulnerable.
    Thanks, and please keep writing.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words and personal additions to the story – readers like you give these stories a 3rd dimension that I simply can’t provide with just photos and text. Again, thank you, and please keep reading!
      Keith

  2. Frank Mea says:

    Actually, “…the brooding towers of a public housing project (which) loom over everything in the background” are the Penn South Mutual Redevelopment Houses, built in the early 1960’s (with President Kennedy presiding at the opening ceremony) by the International Ladies Garment workers Union. Penn South is considered to be among the few developments which allow Manhattan to retain a semblance of middle-class habitation.

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