Why You Should Visit The Times Square Visitor Center (Even If You Live In New York)

OK, I’ll admit it: I was a Times Square Visitor Center snob.

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From my earliest days as a tourist in NYC, to my years as a student at Columbia, through my career as a scout, right up until…well, right up until last week, I’ve always considered the Times Square Visitor Center to be the one place I’d never visit. Going through those doors just seemed like such an admission of failure, a way of screaming to the world that I couldn’t figure out the city on my own, that I’d resorted to going to the most touristy of touristed areas of Manhattan for help.

Then, last week, as I happened to pass by while scouting a nearby office, I noticed they had free bathrooms.

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As I walked down the entrance hall, something about the decor immediately struck me. From the marble accents and gold-framed posters on the walls…

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…to the hanging chandeliers…

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…to the brass entrance doors, it almost felt like I was entering a theater.

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Confused, I headed inside the entrance, where the walls suddenly became wood-paneled…

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…with all sorts of elegant ornamentation.

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Completely forgetting about the bathrooms, I stepped into the main area, and then it struck me: either the entire place had been built to resemble a Times Square movie theater of old, which would make sense…or it actually used to be one.

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As it turns out, it actually used to be one.

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This was once the Embassy Theater, a French salon-styled 556-seat one-screen movie theater opened in 1925 by Loew’s. Intended for high society audiences, it was notable at the time for being the only theater in the country managed by a woman, one Gloria Gould (granddaughter of railroad baron Jay Gould), who employed an all-female staff. Several years later, the theater adopted an all-newsreel format, the first of its kind.

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As television replaced the need for movie theater newsreels, the Embassy began showing foreign films, and later, as Times Square began its decline, second run movies. Designated an interior landmark in 1987, it finally closed in 1997 only to re-open a year later as the newly restored Times Square Visitor Center.

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The theater is essentially as it used to be, with just the seats removed (even the sloped floor has been left at an angle):

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Designed by Thomas Lamb, the ceiling features eight beautiful globe lights…

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…surrounding an ornate centerpiece:

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The screen is small by modern standards, but the Embassy was always intended to be a miniature theater, providing a more intimate experience:

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The old wooden stage, featuring footlights:

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This decorative motif can be found repeated along the walls:

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Above the light, a woman watches down…

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…while below, two women hold it up. The Landmarks Commission report describes the theater as having consciously feminist overtones:

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Another great detail…

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…the stained-glass EXIT signs:

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Interspersed along the walls are a series of ornamental alcoves framing murals by artist/designer Arthur Crisp:

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Several were restored in 2010:

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A close-up:

IMG_4165

To me, the most impressive salon-like elements can be found as you first enter:

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Additional designwork by Crisp:

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There are some additional Times Square history bits on display, like the infamous Peep-O-Rama sign, some sex booths, the New Year’s ball – but to me, the real thrill was stepping into one of those rare pockets where the Times Square of old had somehow managed to survive.

I’m sure that a good percentage of you already know about this. But if you’re like me and you’ve been avoiding it all these years, just suck it up and go be a tourist in Times Square for a few minutes. It’s worth it.

-SCOUT

PS – Oh, and the bathrooms were pretty clean too.

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27 comments

  1. WOW, well Scout, you score another one to make all of us stop and take notice. This is absolutely amazing, the preservation of the original features is unreal. Thanks so much for your continued posts of really unique features about NY.

  2. haha, avoid? i didn’t even know this was there! totally going to visit soon.

  3. It has been awhile since I’ve commented on how great I think your site is, so consider yourself complimented once again!

    Like you, I have a deep love and appreciation for these hidden relics of old NY. And, like you, I have never gone in to this place because there are always too many tourists around.

    I’ll be in Times Square this month for the BC/EFA Flea Market and I’m going to check it out!

  4. I knew the space had been a theater and have been in to see it, but you provided much more detail and history than I knew, as usual. Great job.

  5. I had no idea this was even here! Thank you for sharing. Think I will head down there this week.

  6. Check out Jimmy’s Corner Bar for another relic of old-school Times Square. As far as I know, it’s the last vestige of Times Square as a boxing hotspot.

  7. This is amazing! Thanks for sharing this and for all the great information and photos you bring to us.

  8. Count me in as a place to avoid. Fiday I was walking from work and had to avoid the area completely b/c the amount of tourists is ridiculous.

  9. One of my favorite things in Times Square. I love going in there and I can even say I’ve fished a quarter out of the toilet for my 3 year old. So they are really clean!

  10. Feminist overtones? Today most feminists would have a conniption over the figures of two nekkid women holding up a lamp!

  11. I’ve taken many tourist there before. They love writing their wishes on the provided confetti, which will be dropped on NYE in TS.

  12. hard to believe you didn’t know this place existed. you might want to point out the big Times Square ball that they keep on display, and people to be photographed with.

  13. This is also, for the time being, where all us actors have to enter in order to go up to Actors Equity for auditions. If you go early in the morning, and I mean early 7 am or so, you’ll see a line of actors inside waiting patiently (exhaustedly) for the Equity to open up. So that’s a fun little bit of info, this building is where tons of NY actors start their days. At least until the construction around the corner is finished.

  14. Ever since Disney and Guliani collaborated on the pasteurization of Times Square I usually keep as far away from that tourist hell as possible. You have given me a reason to dip a toe, however reluctantly, into this part of old New York that I wasn’t aware still existed. Keep scouting for those of us with less intrepid spirits.

  15. I wish I’d known about this sooner. We were right there with the family recently, and didn’t know to go inside. Will definitely do so on the next trip. My kids will love to see the New Year’s ball.

    Perhaps those two figures holding up the light fixture were the original inspirations for the peepshow trade in Times Square (which I’m happy is gone). Yeah, the new TS may be overly corporate, but it’s now a safe place that has become central to this New York City family’s visits to Manhattan. I would never have taken my family to TS if it was in the same condition it was when I used to go there with my college buddies in the 80s.

    There’s so much about New York about which it’s worth being nostalgic, but the TS of the 70s and 80s is not one of them.

  16. Thanks for showing me something I also avoided. I will definitely take a look next time I’m in that area. Very cool!

  17. Ms Gould planned on female ushers to be young ladies in ballet costumes. She inevitably bailed on the project in 1925, hopping on a steamer bound for France saying, “I could not afford to live in New York any more even if I wanted to.”

  18. My sis and I will be in town next month for our 50th/60th birthdays (won’t tell you which one I am… :) We are hitting Broadway, and so will be close by this place. Wonderful, timely article – cant wait to see it in person!

  19. Having only started planning my first trip to NYC I may not have known to go into this place. I am of course planning the Times Square at night visit, but I may now throw in some extra time to visit here! I have been searching for places that I have to see so thanks for this. And if anyone has any other fantastic ideas, I am game! I would recommend Monica DiNatale’s Guide 365 New York City. She has a great listing of places to eat and drink in the city based on each day of the year! monicadinatale.com is her site for the info!

  20. I read about the visitor’s center before I went to NYC for the first time in 2005. And the fact that it has free (clean) public restrooms is a life saver. Also, I found out about the lottery system that a lot of the theatres run and my friend and I were able to score second-row center seats for Rent for $20 each (cliche yes, but I was a Rent-obsessed, suburban teen in the late nineties).

    There is so much great information available to everyone who goes in. Plus it’s air conditioned and the theatre seats in the front offer a nice respite for tired feet.

    And there is the beauty and ambiance you’ve highlighted as well. Plus the fact that it felt like a super secret bonus for us when we stopped in.

  21. When my husband and I were called off work the Monday of Sandy and everyone was bracing for the storm to hit that night, we decided to take a walk around gloriously near-empty Times Square. I had also had a disgusted aversion to whatever the Visitor Center might have been, but seeing it wide open and no crowd, we went in. Like your experience, what a delight.

  22. I have learned a lot from this post, and the comments. I do want to let Loraine know that there is a better website addy for that book, 365guidenyc.com. I actually picked up a copy of this book and I must say she’s got a lot of the right places in my opinion. Her Times Square section is really great!

  23. I went there last week while we are in town; loved seeing all that in person! Wish I had more time to explore other places – next time!

  24. Congrats, you really have interesting things to say about sites we walk to and never pay attention. Keep up the good work. Greetings from Lima, Peru.

  25. I have known about this place for well over 15 years. It was great to run into in the middle of the day to check your email back in the day. When I first moved here back in 98 I was able to go here and by the Sunday LA Times ever week and it made me happy.

  26. theres a sign outside now that says permanently closed and this is on the website: The Times Square Museum and Visitor Center is now permanently closed. Please refer to the rest of our website for details about Times Square and The Times Square Alliance.

    :(

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