The redevelopment of the site of a historic cinema in Queens is one step closer to reality. On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a plan to restore the lobby of the former RKO Keith’s Flushing Theater, at 135-29 Northern Boulevard, and integrate it into a new apartment building with retail to be constructed around it.
The former theater is located between Prince and Farmington streets. It was designed in the Churrigueresque style by Thomas Lamb and built in 1928. In February of 1984, the interiors were designated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. In July, however, the now-defunct Board of Estimate modified that designation to include basically just the ticket lobby, grand foyer, grand foyer staircases, and associated fixtures and components. The designation itself is odd, but not unheard of, in that interior spaces of a building were designated when the exterior was not.
Sadly, the theater itself closed in 1986 and has six owners have less than faithfully cared for it since then.
Now, Xinyuan Real Estate plans to demolish the non-designated portions of the theater, including the auditorium, and construct a 16-story, 269-unit apartment building with retail around the landmarked spaces. The glassy new building is the work of the noted architecture firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.
The restoration work comes from preservation consultant Jacqueline Peu-Duvallon and preservation architect Angel Ayon of Union Square-based Ayon Studio Architecture and Preservation. Peu-Duvallon and Ayon made Tuesday’s presentation to the LPC.
Due in part to the aforementioned less than faithful care by the landmark’s previous owners, there has been significant deterioration, including several ceiling collapses. While some of the site will be repaired in-place, some of it will be replaced with in-kind materials, while other parts, particularly a lot of plasterwork and woodwork, will be removed, stored offsite, and re-installed later. One-quarter of the grand foyer will be replaced in-kind.
The city has required a $10 million bond to assure the safe upkeep and reinstallation or removed portions of the building. One aspect of the restoration will include reconnection to Con Edison, which will allow the site to be dried out and then it will be properly waterproofed.
There will be wayfinding signage outside the new building indicating the historic material inside. The public will have unfettered access to the ticket lobby, but access to the grand foyer is still being worked out by the developer.
While old buildings have been entombed in new ones before, this particular arrangement is a first for the Landmarks Preservation Commission, according to LPC general counsel Mark Silberman.
LPC Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan noted there has been a very long wait for this site to see new life. Commissioner Michael Goldblum called Tuesday a “remarkable day.” Commissioner Wellington Chen called it “déjà vu all over again,” adding that he hoped the original lobby fountain can be located and used.
Commissioner Diana Chapin, who represents Queens, said, “If we don’t act now, we’re going to lose what we have.” Commissioner Kim Vauss applauded the restoration plan.
Commissioner Frederick Bland called the proposed restoration “first class,” but also conceded that this is “one of the strangest situations” he has ever encountered. Given how little would be preserved, he asked, “At what point is a landmark lost?” and called the whole concept “bizarre.”
City Council Member Peter Koo and Queens Community Board 7 both support the redevelopment plan, but the community board hoped for the fountain to be found.
Patrick Waldo of the Historic Districts Council testified in support of the restoration. He did, however, also testify about several concerns, including access and awareness of the landmark’s existence. “While it might be beyond scope for the LPC to publicly deliberate on negotiations with the owners, it is imperative in this case that the Landmarks Commissioners insure that the public will be able to regularly visit and experience this fantastic landmark, especially considering all the fine work which this team is putting into restoring it,” he said.
Christabel Gough of the Society for the Architecture of the City testified that access needs to be insured. She also lamented that, when complete, the interior will consist of quite a lot of reproduction, when compared to the original material.
Attorney and noted preservation crusader Michael Hiller, who recently helped stop the condo conversion of the former First Church of Christ, Scientist on the Upper West Side, testified in opposition to the proposal, saying that its very nature would violate the Landmarks law. While any building can have its exterior designated an individual landmark, only sites consistently open to the public can be designated interior landmarks. So, he said that by converting the space to part of a residential structure, where access is usually only granted to guests of residents, the law would be violated and the designation essentially negated.
In 2014, the commission approved the conversion of the former office building at 346 Broadway to residential use. That included its iconic clock tower. In 2016, however, a court reversed part of that approval, ruling that the LPC does have the power to mandate the clock not be part of a private apartment, and would continue to be wound by hand.
In the end, the commissioners approved the proposal before them, without modification and with unanimity.