An Odd Roof

The title of that early 1900s photo is “During a performance at Hammerstein’s Paradise Gardens, New York”. The first three words are obvious, and Hammerstein is a name with a long history in New York theater, but the phrase “Paradise Gardens” is a red flag of sorts. Salesmanship appears to be intruding on reality. What really caught my eye are the round columns supporting the roof (or ceiling): they are incredible thin for their length. Slender columns are possible with metal framing but you don’t often see them this slender. It suggests that the wood structure of the roof has nothing above it. The reason for keeping the columns slender is simple – they partially obstruct the view of all of the seats except for a small percentage in the center front – but the reality of most theaters is that if columns were required they were too heavily loaded to be so slender.

There are other oddities: what kind of theater has big windows along the side that are not curtained during a performance? Why is the seating area so small for a New York theater? For such a small theater, why are there columns at all, rather than clear-spanning trusses? I had never heard of Hammerstein’s Paradise Gardens, so that seemed like the place to start. It was a roof garden – an extremely popular type of attraction for three seasons each year in 1890s-1920s New York – with various amusement-park-type attractions and an partially-enclosed theater built on top of two large theater buildings controlled by Hammerstein. As always, it helps to look at what was actually there, using 1907 Sanborn map:

In 1900, the theater district was consolidating west of Longacre (soon to be Times) Square, so the big new theaters were surrounded by the less-glamorous past, like the school of dentistry. Forty-Second Street is one of the major cross-town streets, twice as wide as an ordinary street. (North is to the right; Seventh Avenue is the street at the bottom.) A theater on 42nd had more cachet than one on a smaller side street; which is why the biggest theater here, Flo Ziegfeld’s New Amsterdam, has a narrow wing on 42nd Street that serves as the main entrance to a building otherwise facing 41st Street. Hammerstein’s roof garden was on top of the Victoria and Republic Theaters; there’s another roof garden on top of the New Amsterdam. The rest of the information on the map gets deep into fire protection and the building code.

The rise of fireproofed buildings in the 1890s meant that the Sunburn map color code changed. Pink still meant a brick-walled building with a wood interior; pink with a blue stripe meant stone veneer on the street facade; yellow meant wood-frame construction, like the rear sheds on the old row houses further west. Beige meant “fire-proof construction” unless qualified by words limiting the amount of protection. Simply put, all of the big new buildings are fireproofed except the Victoria Theater, which apparently was what was directly below the theater portion of the rooftop Paradise Garden. Whoever wrote the informational notes on the map was not impressed with the construction of the amusements on the roof of the Republic (“numerous sheds of [wood] frame and plaster construction on roof”) or the open-air theater on the roof of the Victoria (“iron columns, wood beams, and corrugated iron roof”).

The Victoria itself is the oddball. It open in March 1899, so it was obviously built in 1898. The 1899 New York City Building Code had a section specifically for theaters seating over 300 people (the map above says that the Victoria’s stated capacity was 1400) that included the following: “Nothing herein contained shall prevent a roof garden, art gallery, or rooms for similar purposes being placed above a theatre or public building, provided the floor of the same forming the roof over such theatre or building shall be constructed of iron or steel and fireproof materials, and that said floor shall have no covering boards or sleepers of wood, but be of tile or cement. Every roof over said garden or rooms shall have all supports or rafters of iron or steel, and be covered with glass or fireproof materials, or both…” In other words, the wood construction of the Paradise Garden was not allowed under the new code. More importantly, the 1899 code generally required that almost all of a theater be of fireproofed construction, which the Victoria was not. This where the story gets odder. The previous code, from 1892, did not have any where near as much detail about theaters, but did require all theaters taller than 35 feet (the Victoria’s roofs were 70 and 75 feet high) to be fireproof. So how did a theater with a seating capacity of 1400 that seems to violate code get approved? My guess is that it met the bare minimum standards of 1890s fireproofing, which were not considered by the hard-headed reviewers at Sanborn to be good enough. The older code did not spell out every detail of fireproofing the way that the new one did, so an improperly-fireproofed building was possible. The Victoria was apparently built on the cheap, and was effectively demolished and rebuilt in its 1915 conversion to movie use.

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