It’s been a while since my last post, mostly because I’ve been occupied with a move to a new apartment and neighborhood. The neighborhood is one I expect to be writing about on Gotham Lost & Found in the months to come. It’s a sliver of upper Manhattan perched above the banks of the Hudson in the West 180s and lower 190s, filled with wonderful Art Deco apartment houses, expansive parks and small family-owned businesses – many of which, like Gideon’s bakery, have been here for decades. Once the enclave was known as Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson, on account of the German-speaking Jewish population who called it home during the 1930s and 40s. Elements of that old-world culture remain, but the area is now being changed somewhat by an influx of younger people – migrants from the Upper West Side and points to the south.
One of the nice points about living here is that it has given me a chance to explore other sections of uptown Manhattan nearby. Coinciding with this development was my receipt of an inquiry from reader Adrian Allen, who wrote about “a building on Wadsworth Av. between 180 & 181 St.” Adrian wrote a nice description of the exterior:
The building appears to be an old movie theater or a vaudeville house. On the facade are several “gargoyles” with different facial expressions. The building also has an imprint of a marquee. It is now a clothing store. Please check this building out. It is totally amazing!
I took Adrian’s suggestion and went to the site, located not far from the massive RKO Coliseum movie palace on 181st; the facade is indeed striking:
It turns out that this building was in fact built as a movie theater, the Heights, which opened in the fall of 1913. According to my friend Thomas Rinaldi, who wrote a fascinating paper on another of the neighborhood’s surviving old theaters, the Empress (which still contains its original pipe organ!), the Heights’ location was significant: “A middle class neighborhood, Washington Heights was well-suited as a proving ground for the growing film industry, whose strategy was to provide inexpensive entertainment to a mass market.” By the 1920s, Tom writes, at least five motion picture theaters had opened in the area; most have survived (albeit in altered form) into the present day.
Tom was also kind enough to provide me with a copy of Motion Picture News from 1913, which gives a description of the new Heights’ interior:
The “Heights” theatre is devoted to high-class motion pictures exclusively. They are projected on a gold fibre screen and are accompanied by one of the Wurlitzer Unit orchestras. The auditorium is lighted with the indirect lighting system and no side lights on the walls to shine in the eyes of the audience. Six hundred of the most comfortable seats, carpets in the aisles, brass railings, etc., complete the arrangements of the auditorium.
As Tom emphasizes so well in his paper, the Heights’s history is inextricable from that of its neighborhood. In later years, it showcased foreign and art films (including Tosca, in 1956), then, by the early 1980s, xxx-rated features. Today it houses a shoe store. Whatever is left of the original interior is hidden behind drop ceilings, but outside the decorative work remains intact. Here’s a closeup: