Last week, I was scouting on Jamaica Ave when I noticed a movie-theater-turned-church up the block.
This is pretty common in New York, where are a LOT of once great theaters have been gutted and repurposed, most often into churches, pharmacies and gyms. I’ve stopped in quite a few hoping to find the rare gem that’s survived, but have only been disappointed time and again.
But something immediately stuck out about the Tabernacle of Prayer church.
What a gloriously stunning facade:
The entire front is dripping with swirls of ornamentation, a whimsical blend of Spanish and Mexican baroque design – with an aquatic emphasis? Note the mermaid in the center…
And the numerous half-shells dotting the front. I also love that headressed figure on the right:
But was the interior as well preserved? Or was this another case of a beautiful facade masking a lifeless interior? I tried to go inside, but the church was closed until Sunday. I was definitely coming back.
In the meantime, I did a bit of research and was surprised to learn that this was once the Loew’s Valencia movie palace, one of five flagship Wonder Theaters opened by the Loew’s chain in and around New York in the late 1920’s (a time when an elevated subway used to run along Jamaica Ave).
All five Wonder Theatres are miraculously still standing. I’ve written about Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre (now being restored), and I’ve been to The Bronx’s Paradise Theatre, Washington Heights’ 175th Street Theatre, and the Loew’s Jersey City. But how had I missed the Valencia?
Then I found this picture of the interior in its hey day, and it floored me. It wasn’t so much a theater as an outdoor village, complete with a night sky. Could this possibly have survived into the 21st century?
With fingers crossed, I returned the following Sunday. And, just going into the entranceway, I was taken aback.
Already, the entire place was dripping with exactly the sort of intricate design I was hoping to find still intact.
The original ticket booth – can you imagine buying a movie ticket here??
The ceiling – note the beautiful hanging lanterns, all of which were still working:
The floor tiles, and not a single one missing. All a very good sign…
Then I stepped into the entrance galley, and realized I had stumbled on something very special.
Right off, the towering arched ceiling sets the tone, literally the total polar opposite of what a movie-going experience is like today. If I don’t stop myself, I’ll use the word “glorious” too much, but that’s exactly what I kept thinking.
Note how the wooden ticket line banisters are still in place:
In a 1990 article, the NY Times designed this as “more Persian than anything else, a riot of scupltured, gilded plaster screens and balconies.” The balconies line both walls…
…and just look at the insane designwork below:
Another fascinating feature – about one fifth of the lobby has been sectioned off by these elaborate columns:
Guessing here, but perhaps this was the designated exit?
Bringing me right back to Spain were the numerous colorful tiles set into the plaster:
Today, religious messages are displayed where movie advertisements would have been:
From there, I headed into the lobby proper, and the grandeur only intensified.
Turning right into the central part of the lobby…
…there was suddenly no question I was in a palace – movie or otherwise.
The Loew’s Wonder Theatres were created in the late-1920s for movie-goers for whom midtown Manhattan wasn’t easily accessible. The Valencia was the first of the five to open on January 12, 1929.
The Valencia was the work of architect John Eberson, who designed nearly 100 movie palaces around the world, most described as “atmospheric” for their over-the-top, exotic decor. Sadly, many are long gone, razed to make way for new development in an age where such a theater could house twenty screens instead of just one.
The Valencia is largely considered to be the most elaborate of all his New York theaters.
And it really is unbelievable just how much has been packed into every inch of space:
One of my favorite elements of the lobby is the enormous fountain stationed right at the entrance, which all movie-goers would have to pass before entering the theater.
Incredibly, it was working until just recently:
Several more animals keep watch:
The sort-of Spanish/sort-of Mexican wall decor:
Even the air vents have flair:
And then it was time to head into the theater…
…which might as well have been a trip back to 1929.
I’m not even sure the term “movie palace” does the Valencia justice. More like “movie cathedral.”
As the NY Times wrote in 1990, “the vast auditorium itself will make even the most jaded architectural pilgrim gasp, or even kneel.” I’m pretty sure I did both.
What I absolutely love about the Valencia is how it puts the audience not in a movie theater, but rather in the center of a Spanish – or is that Mexican? – town.
Fake foliage lines the edges of building facades covered in over-the-top ornamentation:
You practically expect to look up and see someone watching the movie from one of the many faux balconies dotting the edges:
Each side of the theater is different, giving you the sense of being a part of a movie set.
The ceiling, meant to be the sky, is painted a dark blue with hints of cloud. And if you look really closely, you can just make out tiny pin-pricks of light. In other words, movie-goers would look up from the film and see a starry night sky overhead.
By the mid-1970’s, audiences had shrunk and most of the fare at the Valencia were Blaxploitation films. The theater was donated to the Tabernacle of Prayer church, who has kept it in immaculate shape ever since. Said Reverend Johnnie Washington in 1977, “It has a beauty, an atmosphere that makes you feel you are at someplace sacred.”
The theater holds 3,500, and there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
A few changes have been made over the years. The chandelier above is of course new. Also, a number of formerly nude statues above the altar seemed somewhat out of place for a house of worship.
But, some angel wings and robes later, all is taken care of:
In particular, I love the balconies running along the sides of the theater.
While I highly doubt anyone actually ever watched movies from here…
…they are actually accessible from the balcony level:
Detail on the theater seats:
The side aisles:
Golden torches lighting the way:
All the original aisle signs are still in place, including one denoting a Children Section, for when kids could be dropped off at the theater on weekends:
A series of cut-outs offer the sky impression to those seated under the balcony:
My favorite door in the theater…
…featuring this flowering emblem:
Golden metal ropes line the walls:
Even for those holding the cheaper balcony tickets, the trip upstairs offered no lack of splendor:
The mezzanine level:
Check out the amazing railings:
The entrance to the balcony – note the arched wooden doors:
The men’s room entrance…
…complete with sailing ship tiles.
And finally, the women’s room entrance, with a different motif:
A special thanks to Sister Forbes, who saw me taking pictures and insisted I take a private guided tour with her. From all the church patrons I spoke with, the Valencia is a treasured home treated with reverence, and it’s safe to say the old movie palace is in good hands.
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