Back in November, I shared a post with you about the Valencia Theater, one of Loew’s “Wonder Theaters” in Queens, NY. Well, in December, I had the opportunity to check out one of the other local Wonder Theaters with the New York Adventure Club, and this time, it was Manhattan’s United Palace Theater. And I’m happy to report that it is just as spectacular as its cousin in Queens!
Encompassing an entire city block in Washington Heights, the United Palace has about 3,500 seats and is presently the fourth largest theater in Manhattan. It was built in 1930 as the “175th Street Theater”, and it was designed by architect Thomas Lamb, who had designed HUNDREDS of theaters in his lifetime, including a dozen or so for the Loew’s theater chain. The stunning interior was designed by Harold Rambusch, who is also known for his work at the Waldorf Astoria and Radio City Music Hall.
The United Palace Theater is very different from the Valencia, but it is no less ornate. Unlike the Valencia which has several bright colors utilized throughout, the United Palace tends more to golds and deep reds. Within the theater, the walls and ceiling are covered in gold, but it’s not actually metal you’re seeing!
It’s simply tons of plaster all cut into beautiful designs that are painted gold. You certainly wouldn’t know this just to look at it, but our tour guide showed us a few places where the plaster had broken apart, and sure enough, you can see the crumbling white material underneath the paint. The design is unusual, pulling from Asian and Islamic influences (as well as many others!), but the final result is gorgeous.
When it initially opened, the United Palace showed both movies and vaudeville performances. Its first movie when it opened on February 12, 1930 was Their Own Desire, and its last movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was shown in 1969 just before Loew’s closed the theater.
The United Palace had operated continuously during those nearly 40 years, and as soon as the theater closed, it was purchased by the United Palace of Spiritual Arts, whose congregation was led by a televangelist, Rev. Frederick Eikerenkoetter, better known as Rev. Ike, who began holding church services there immediately after the theater was turned over to them. It was actually Rev. Ike and the United Palace of Spiritual Arts who renamed the theater the “United Palace”, and he, and then later his son, operated a church here up until 2017 when the family completely ended their involvement at the theater.
On the day of our tour, there were a ton a people arriving at the same time as our tour group, and we couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. As it turns out, there was a local official, Ydanis Rodriguez, who was having a rally there to announce his campaign for NYC Public Advocate. This was all happening out in the beautiful main lobby, so, unfortunately, we didn’t get to spend any time there, which was a bummer since it looked incredible. Instead, we sneaked off to the side and went straight into the theater to start our tour.
We began in the orchestra section right down front and our guide, Yubi, gave us a wonderful introduction to the theater and its history. We had an opportunity to climb up onto the stage (which we did NOT get to do on our tour of the Valencia), and when you’re standing up there, you really get a sense of the sheer size of the place. It’s massive!
From the stage, we could see all of the new state-of-the-art lighting and surround sound equipment, as well as a retractable projection screen that is hiding up in the rafters. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who grew up in Washington Heights, is a United Palace donor, and it was actually he who helped bring movies back to the theater. He donated money for the theater to buy a new projector and assisted them with fundraising the rest. They do an annual screening of It’s a Wonderful Life, and they even had Donna Reed’s daughter there this past year to do an introduction and read some letters that had been sent to her mother.
We learned that the front portion of the stage was designed to be raised and lowered, and the original hydraulics system still works today. There was a separate, smaller section where the original organ, a Robert Morton Wonder Organ, could also be raised and lowered for movies and performances. Sadly, the organ, which is the last remaining of its kind, was damaged by water and fire and is no longer at the theater. However, the United Palace is in the process of fundraising to restore and reinstall the organ and its pipes at the theater. They have a fascinating blog detailing the progress of the restoration in case you’re into that kind of thing!
After, we headed up to the balcony, where we were able to get an up-close look at more of the design work on the walls and ceiling. There are Asian deities, elephants, cherubs, lions, weird dog-looking things with red and green eyes, seahorses, cranes, and more. Definitely a whole lot going on there design-wise!
And even up in the balcony, you can tell that the acoustics are amazing. While we were there, Yubi was talking with someone who was down on the stage, and we could hear the whole conversation back and forth perfectly, and neither of them was yelling. It was pretty incredible!
We also got to wander around the balcony-level hallway a bit and peek into the old ladies’ and men’s smoking rooms. The ladies room is now used for storage, but it’s also home to the last remaining bits of original carpet in the theater. The men’s smoking room is used for meeting space and a board room, and it’s also been used in several film shoots, including Woody Allen’s 2016 movie Cafe Society.
We wrapped up our tour with a visit backstage and into the green rooms and dressing rooms, as well as into a secondary part of the theater that used to house various shops (and even a dentist office at one time) but which has since been converted into multi-purpose space, meeting rooms, and dance rehearsal space. The dance rooms even have really nice high-bounce floors, which are much more gentle on dancers’ bodies. We got to test them out a little, and you can definitely tell the difference compared to regular old concrete floors!
Before parting ways with Yubi, we learned that the United Palace is still used as a church today, as well as the home of a nonprofit called the United Palace of Cultural Arts, which is a community-based cultural arts organization. They host ongoing events for the community in various parts of the theater, including around 80 dance classes a week, and many of their events and activities are either free or pay-what-you-wish!
The theater has also been a popular venue for performers such as Lenny Kravitz, Adele, Dave Matthews, Lorde, and, of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda (and it looks like Trey Anastasio will be there in April 2019). You may have even already seen glimpses of the theater in movies and TV shows such as Luke Cage, Blacklist, and Gotham.
If you want to visit the theater yourself, the New York Adventure Club offers tours about once a month, but you can also attend one of the theater’s community events, a movie screening, a concert, or one of their church services, which are non-denominational. You can even book the theater yourself if you want to host your own event in this massive and impressive space. No matter how you do it, I would highly recommend that you make a visit to this beautiful theater sometime soon!
Have you already visited the United Palace? Let me know what you think!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- United Palace Theater: 4140 Broadway at 175th St, New York, NY 10033
When to Go
- Check out the theater’s calendar for upcoming events if you want to plan a visit in conjunction with something else.
- Join their Sunday services at noon (or watch their live stream if you want a sneak peek!)
- Come to an upcoming movie!
- Finally, get a behind-the-scenes look of the theater on a New York Adventure Club tour. Check their schedule to see when the next tour is happening!
Tips for Visiting
- Once inside the theater, really look at everything closely. There is so much detail to take in, and it would be really easy to miss a lot of very cool stuff. Take some time to soak it all in.
- This is an active theater and event space, so know that, even on a tour, access may be limited depending on what’s happening on the day of your tour. Check their calendar in advance to see if there will be other activities happening the same day.
- For major events and concerts, be sure to check out their house rules and prohibited items in advance of your visit so you can prepare accordingly. They do use metal detectors and check bags for major events, as is common with most large event spaces in NYC.
- Parking in the area, especially on Sundays, is VERY limited because there are several churches in the area, many of which have lines and lines of double-parked cars outside. The theater is just a block away from the 175th St. A train, so it’s very convenient to take the subway there.