At various points in the past 153 years years, it’s been a church, a synagogue, and a performance space; now, after years of vacancy, the Paul Robeson Theatre in Fort Greene is headed for its next life.
The eye-catching building at 40 Greene Avenue was first built in 1864 as a Universalist church, then served as a Reform synagogue—one of the borough’s first, according to its designation from the Landmarks Preservation Commission—followed by a 90-year stint as a Catholic parish catering to Polish Brooklynites.
Only in 1980 did it become what it is known as today, thanks to founder Dr. Josephine English: a theater named after the legendary actor and activist, where plays for the African-American community were staged for 30 years.
Now, developer Oren Evenhar is looking for a new use for the distinctive Round Arch-style building. He fell in love with the space before purchasing it earlier this year for an undisclosed amount.
“I walked into the space and said ‘Oh, I have to buy it. I don’t know what I’m doing with it, but it’s just incredible,’” he recalled while walking through the structure’s three-story sanctuary.
Evenhar and his firm Pine Builders have their work cut out for them. An unattended leak has soaked the ceiling and its decorative plaster, paint is peeling, rusted lighting equipment hangs haphazardly and two-by-fours prop up a massive stained-glass rose window in the building’s front balcony.
But Evenhar—working with the design firm DXA Studio and the son of Dr. English, who has a minority stake in the property—envisions some sort of “community-type use” for the space, perhaps a school, professional performance hall or venue, or even medical facility. “The original approach was, maybe we convert it into residential. But it has too much charm,” he explains.
While Evenhar finds an operator, work is moving ahead to update the building’s facade and entrance to make it wheelchair-accessible; the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved that plan last month.
According to DXA’s Jordan Rogove, who is heading up the design for the project, many of the building’s distinctive features—including a cast iron steeple and the original stained-glass windows, painted by the European artist Simon Berasaluce—will stay. The firm will make every effort to salvage smaller interior details, including the church’s “sparse” paint and plaster designs.
“The detail that’s there is quite nice,” Rogove says. “It’s run down a little bit, but there’s a beauty in that as well.”
In his “heart of hearts,” Rogove would like to see the building maintained as a theater space, but knows that may be a longshot. Either way, he’s happy to be involved in “giving it the next life,” particularly because of its “great Brooklyn history” filled with diverse uses. “It’s like a little Hagia Sophia,” he notes.
Construction on the entrance and facade will likely begin in the next three or four months, Rogove says, in which time Evenhar will be on the hunt for the next group to call the theater home.
“We’re looking to find a good user for it, and somebody who will do it justice,” he says.