Times Square’s beloved Toy ‘R’ Us shuttered in the beginning of the year with demolition crews following soon behind to begin remaking the space for its next tenants. But as is common in buildings of its age, a surprise popped up during demolition. The crews unearthed the remnants of a historic theater that once sat at the site of the Bow Tie Building along Broadway between West 44th and 45th streets.
The theater dates to the turn of the 20th century when impresario Oscar Hammerstein I built Hammerstein’s Olympia, a music hall, concert hall, theater, and roof garden that opened in 1895. At the time, its location was known as Longacre Square—it wasn’t until nine years later when the Gray Lady moved its headquarters nearby that the square would begin going by Times—and the establishment was only the second of its kind in an area that would later become known as Theater Row.
The Olympia was a gray Indiana limestone building designed in the French Renaissance style with three performance halls. On the occasion of the theater’s 100th anniversary, by then long gone, the Times remembered its opening night:
The opening was stupendous. The New York Times's front page the morning after reported that Hammerstein had to call on the police to help him keep people out of the new theater, "one of the most colossal places of amusement in the world." He had seating room for 6,000; he sold 10,000 tickets...
Crowds also surged into the Olympia's music hall, which featured 30 European entertainers with marionettes, somersaulters, high-wire walkers, clowns and a female impersonator. The run-over crowd took refuge in the concert hall, where a band played on until 1 A.M. But thousands were turned back into the mud and slush of Longacre.
Hammertein went bust on the Olympia, with the Times attributing its failings to its timing: it opened just as vaudeville was on the rise, and at a time when immigrants to New York City didn’t understand English well enough to sustain theaters. The theater would be split in two, giving way to two theaters, one of which would become a movie theater that was demolished in 1935.
The remnants uncovered by the construction crews won’t be exposed for long, but intrepid arts administrator and theatre aficionado Howard Sherman was granted access to the site to photograph what remains. The photos are a humbling reminder that New York City is always remaking itself. At that, construction on the site is expected to wrap in early 2017, with the opening of the new flagship stores for global retailers Gap and Old Navy following soon after.