Thomas W. Lamb (1871-1942) was one of the foremost designer of theaters and cinemas in the 20th century and first achieved renown during the construction boom in movie theaters during its first two decades. Lamb’s signature designs created large, lavishly decorated theaters, rightfully called “movie palaces.” The Ridgewood Theater, constructed in 1916, came close on the heels of his first theater design: the City Theatre, built in New York in 1909 (now demolished). Lamb designed over three hundred theater buildings throughout his career and the Ridgewood Theater is a fine example of his earlier designs, a neighborhood theater designed to attract local patrons.
Lamb’s story is truly an American story. Born in Scotland, he came to the United States in 1883 at the age of 10. He was an apprentice building inspector and eventually started his own practice in 1892. He quickly established himself as an expert on theater design and dominated the industry receiving numerous commissions and collaborated with movie moguls & pioneers such as Marcus Loew, William Fox & “Roxy” Rothafel. Lamb’s design of the Ridgewood—combining classical motifs with modern comforts & innovations, such as heating delivered via subgrade ducting and fire sprinkler systems created a state-of-the-art, safe, and healthy environment dedicated to the newest form of entertainment. Classically inspired motifs and elaborate decorative murals elevated the shared experience of going to the movies for multiple generations of Ridgewood residents. The bright lights on the façade, advertising what was in store for the moviegoer, added to the spectacle and excitement. Its affordability makes the Ridgewood a convenient place to meet friends and enhanced the community of the theater along main street.
Located on Myrtle Avenue, the area’s major commercial thoroughfare, the theater contributed to the creation of a town center for residents moving into nearby rowhouse developments. It wasn’t just Lamb’s innovations that were new: the movie theater itself was an unfamiliar sight. The Ridgewood Theater showed movies continuously for more than 90 years, keeping its tradition alive, even as the world inside and out changed: vaudeville and silent films gave way to talkies, trolleys yielded to automobiles, and the surnames of the inhabitants of Ridgewood’s distinctive and beautiful housing stock continued to reflect New York City’s remarkable churning melting pot.
The Ridgewood Theater proved it was a hard jewel: surviving in spite of the competition for eyeballs that television, radio, and (much later) the internet provided. The theater was commissioned by the Levy Brothers in 1916 to seat 2,500. Construction started in July and a grand opening was held on the 23rd of December, 1916. William Fox made the Ridgewood part of his theater chain around 1923 until 1939. The first all-talking feature film ‘Lights of New York’ was showed at the theater in 1928. It became part of the United Artist chain in the 1980s and was converted into a five screen multiplex. It was one of the longest-running movie theaters in the country by the time it closed in March 2008, as ticket sales declined. A hearing was held by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission [LPC] in March 2009. The theater’s façade was given official landmark status in January 12, 2010 as an exemplar of Lamb’s Beaux-Arts sensibility: straightforward design enhanced with classical and geometric elements such as pilasters and heavily encrusted shields, created in glazed white terra cotta.
The front of the building, three bays wide and three stories tall, is in excellent condition according to the landmarks report and preservationists. The 80s marquee, entrance rollup, and windows are anachronistic touches to the building; however, the two stories above the marquee are largely intact and faced with original terra cotta. In its findings, the LPC explained how the theater retained its distinctive dominance, even after ceasing operations:
“The building retains a strong presence on the street as it rises above the neighboring structures, with its name carved onto the building and its large projecting marquee advertising the wonders within. The Ridgewood Theater’s impressive white façade has helped it stand out from its neighbors, and makes it as attractive to local residents today as when it was constructed.”
The front façade landmark designation is a milestone for the theater after its closure in 2008. Numerous groups contributed to this designation: City Councilmember Diana Reyna, Queens Preservation Alliance, Friends of Ridgewood Theater, Ridgewood Property Owners Association, Ridgewood Development Corp, Myrtle Avenue BID, Four Borough Preservation Alliance, Municipal Art Society, Historic Districts Council, Society for the Architecture of the City, Landmarks Conservancy, and the then-owner of theater, to name just a few.
In 2010 the Guzman brothers of the supermarket chain Associated Supermarket bought the building and yet had no known plans for the building’s re-opening after plans to turn it into a supermarket fell through. The theater went into a deep slumber.