The Italian Renaissance Revival-style Bronx Opera House in Mott Haven that’s functioned since 1913 as a stage theater, a movie theater, a church, a dance hall where major Nuyorican musicians made their mark, and even occasionally a showcase for opera, may be on its way to landmark status.
At a video hearing held by the Landmarks Preservation Commission earlier this month, LPC researcher Bilge Köse laid out the case for the historical significance of the four-story building at 436-442 E. 149th St. It was designed by George Keister, the architect who also designed the Apollo Theater in Harlem and Broadway’s Belasco Theater.
The LPC is expected to vote on the proposal this summer, a spokesperson said. The move is part of a new push by the commission to propose locations with more diverse histories for landmark status as part of its equity framework launched in 2021.
The opera house, now operating as a hotel, was bankrolled by financier Sam Harris and George Cohan, the famous performer, composer and producer nicknamed “The Man Who Owns Broadway.” It was one of several theaters the pair opened in the first two decades of the 20th century as part of the “Subway Circuit,” in which shows that played on Broadway honed their material and tested their broader appeal in outer-borough shows before going on the road.
The building, which hosted performances from big stars including John and Lionel Barrymore, the Marx Brothers, and Cohan himself, was part of a wave of development after the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, or IRT, opened the station for the 2 and 5 lines at East 149th Street and Melrose Avenue in 1904.
The Bronx Opera House’s success sparked the construction of other Mott Haven venues, including the Willis Theatre built in 1922 on East 138th Street and Willis Avenue, and the Forum Theatre, later El Teatro del Puerto Rico, built in 1921 at 490 E. 138th St.
“So here you have three theaters in less than eight minutes’ walking distance from each other,” said Samuel Brooks, founder and president of Mott Haven Historic Districts Association. “This entire area was known for folks coming up here to just go to the theater.”
At the hearing, Köse said the Bronx Opera House had a second life as “one of the most significant cultural venues for the city’s growing Latin music scene in the 1960s through the early 80s.”
‘Hasn’t Been Seen Since’
Despite the venue’s name, operas were always a rarity there.
“It was more like the kind of performance venue you would find in a small town in the West but in the 19th century where they would put on all sorts of shows but they would call it an opera house,” Bronx borough historian emeritus Lloyd Ultan told THE CITY.
A 1916 performance of “Pagliacci” stood out for for what happened just after what the New York Herald called “a remarkable performance” by one of its stars, when Beppo was tied to a car so his keeper could go back in to watch the second half of a double bill and the donkey disappeared.
But while opera performances at the venue in the teens and 1920s mostly attracted patrons from the Hub area’s large German population, more often the space was filled by Broadway and vaudeville shows featuring everything from plate-spinners and animal trainers to ventriloquists and acrobats along with the occasional silent film, including a screening of “Birth of a Nation,” accompanied by an orchestra.
People from all over the borough and Upper Manhattan would catch a trolley to East 149th Street to see a show at the Bronx Opera House, Ultan said, until “there was in the 1930s a slight, small, little dip in the economy called the Great Depression.”
As Broadway ebbed, movie theaters became ever more popular. At some point in the 1930s the Bronx Opera House saw the image projected on the wall and remade itself into a second-run movie theater — uncreatively called The Bronx — that played films that had already debuted in Manhattan.
“If everybody has already seen it, why would you go to The Bronx theater to see it again? It didn’t make sense,” said Ultan. “So, eventually, these last-run theaters died out.”
‘Where Nuyoricans Made Their Mark’
As the borough’s Puerto Rican population swelled, from just over 60,000 in 1914 to 10 times that number by 1960, the theater began serving as a performance hall and dance floor that became a major cultural venue for the borough’s growing Latin music scene.
The venue’s second-floor banquet hall hosted a succession of nightclubs including Caravana Club, the Bronx Casino, and El Cerromar. They hosted big-time names in Latin music including Brooklyn-born percussionist Ray Barreto, “El Inolvidable” Tito Rodríguez, and Dominican-born and New York-bred Fania Records founder and musical director Johnny Pacheco.
In 1961, the year after the space hosted a community meeting about the “war on rats,” Charlie Palmieri recorded his second album, “Pachanga At The Caravana Club,” at the Opera House with a band including his brother Eddie.
The Caravana Club was the hotspot for the pachanga dance craze and the place, Rodríguez later said, “where New York Nuyoricans made their mark.” It later became El Cerromar, which held dances even while The Bronx was burning, and then La Campana by the early 1980s.
After a bid to landmark the interior of the Bronx Opera House failed in 1978 during a push to convert the building into a community center, secular music gave way to a pentecostal church, Templo de Renovación Espiritual, that remained in the space from the mid-1980s through the early 2000s.
In 2011, the 1,920-seat auditorium in the back of the building was demolished and replaced with a three-story office building.
The front of the building, which includes the main entrance, lobby and the banquet hall that held the nightclubs, was repurposed as the Bronx Opera House Hotel in 2013.
In 1969, Mott Haven became the 13th area in New York City and the first in The Bronx to be labeled as a historic district, a designation that carries architectural and historical significance.
The borough now has 13 such districts, on par with Queens but far below the number in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
The areas protect special property, but sometimes annoy local property owners.
When a building is given landmark status because of its “special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the City, state, or nation,” its owner must then seek approval from the LPC for alteration, reconstruction, demolition or new construction that would affect the structure.
That regulatory process, which also applies to historic districts, has frustrated building owners arguing that it derails necessary improvements while failing to fully protect landmarked buildings from demolition. The commission launched an initiative last year to help business owners in landmarked buildings obtain permits more easily.
The new consideration of the Bronx Opera House is part of the equity framework the LPC launched in 2021.
The commission’s consideration of the Opera House is a “perfect example” of its new equity framework in action, said Brooks, who said that identifying and protecting landmarks is even more imperative in Mott Haven given all the new construction in the neighborhood.
“You have development that has taken place around the waters around the Mott Haven area with glassy towers, apartment rentals with all of the amenities,” said Brooks.
In the decades before that boom, he went on, “the LPC never had The Bronx as a targeted area back then.”