Selwyn Theatre Historic Renovation

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Identifier: 2013.260.1
Inclusive Dates: 1980 - 2000
The Selwyn Theatre Historic Renovation Collection documents Roundabout Theatre Company's extensive renovation of the derelict theater, beginning with early negotiations in the mid-1980s through the 42nd Street Development Project/New 42nd Street and culminating in 2000 when the company opened its first production in its new home. The bulk of the Collection chronicles the years 1997-1999 during which the major renovation took place under the supervision/direction of New York's Historic Preservation Committee. The Collection helps bring to light the socioeconomic changes which took place in New York City in the 1980s aimed at redeveloping the theatre district along 42nd Street and the surrounding Times Square neighborhood, and demonstrates the rise of not-for-profit theatre companies producing on Broadway alongside traditional commercial producers.
Roundabout Theatre Company has been in operation as a not-for-profit theater since 1965. Throughout its nearly 50 year history, the company has occupied theaters in the Chelsea, Union Square, and Times Square districts of New York City. Spanning nearly a half century, the company has participated in and witnessed the changes in these districts but none more directly or personally than Times Square. Throughout the first 20 years of business, Roundabout sought a permanent home in which to mount classic revivals. When New York City launched its earliest plans to breathe life into the seedy Times Square neighborhood by bringing entertainment -namely theater companies - back to the historic theater district, Roundabout Theatre was one of the companies contacted. It took nearly a decade to solidify those plans but in the end, Roundabout assumed the lease on the beautiful (but in great need of restoration) Selwyn Theatre on 42nd Street and became one of the lead not-for-profit companies credited with reshaping Times Square into the entertainment hub it is today. 

The Selwyn Theatre was designed for Archibald and Edgar Selwyn by the architect George Keister. The theater was built directly behind the Selwyn's six-floor office building and designed in the style of early Italian Renaissance with interiors of blue and gold, large scale murals, wreath mouldings, dentils, scrolled modillions and stone balusters.

The Selwyn brothers were owner-managers of a play brokerage business (which later became the American Play Company) as well as theater producers under the name Selwyn and Company. In addition to the Selwyn Theatre, the brothers built two other theaters in New York City (the Times Square and the Apollo) and two in Chicago, Illinois (the Selwyn and the Harris).

The New York Selwyn opened in 1918 with a production of Information Please, a comedy written by Jane Cowl and Jane Murfin. Throughout the teens and 1920s, the Selwyn played host to numerous plays and musicals (of note: Tickle Me and Helen of Troy each enjoyed a six month run) but by the 1930s the producers were faced with few critical successes and, by 1934, the Selwyn ceased operation as a legitimate theater, instead becoming a movie house.

Beginning in 1950, the venue was home to a short-lived hybrid programming model that merged moving image with live performance, offering short performances following the feature film (The Respectful Prostitute by Sartre was one such hour-long performance). Only one subsequent stage performance, Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath, followed and h the venue finally becoming a full-fledged double-feature movie house by 1960.Throughout the following decades - through the 1990s - the venue was a movie house.

By the 1970s, the issue facing the Selwyn and other historic theaters along West 42nd Street was urban blight. The historic theaters along 42nd Street had largely been converted into cinemas, replacing the style and glamour of theater entertainment with seedy adult and second-run films. By the 1990s, Times Square and 42nd Street had long been home to street hustlers, sex shops, drug dealers, and derelicts. The area once known as the “Great White Way” had fallen on decidedly hard times.

The City of New York began to devise ways to redevelop the neighborhood to combat the established crime and seediness. By the early 1980s, an official project was launched for this purpose. The 42nd Street Development Project was a collaborative undertaking of the City of New York and the New York State Urban Development Corporation. The project primarily targeted West 42nd Street between Broadway and Eight Avenue, and included plans for new high-rise office buildings, luxury hotels, wholesale and retail markets, upscale restaurants, and renovated theaters. Further to the buildings and commerce, the project aimed to modernize the subway hub located at Times Square/42nd Street with the goal of improving pedestrian traffic and creating safer, cleaner streets for the New York citizenry.

The 42nd Street Redevelopment Project understood the value in restoring the historic theaters along 42nd Street not only to capitalize on classic architecture but also to entice entertainment producers back to the historic district. The theaters included in the redevelopment plan were the New Amsterdam, the Harris, the Liberty, the Empire, the Victory, the Lyric, the Times Square, the Apollo, and the Selwyn. Of these theaters several would be selected for not-for-profit theater use, others would be offered to commercial producers, and the remainder destined for destruction or re-purpose.

By 1987, Roundabout Theatre Company was in communication with 42nd Street Redevelopment Project demonstrating its interest in assuming the lease on one of the 42nd Street theaters. In the early planning phase, the Selwyn Theater was not immediately available. Roundabout Theatre Company submitted a proposal to 42nd Street Entertainment Corporation/Urban Development Corporation to lease the Liberty Theatre, but listed the Selwyn as an alternative should city funding materialize to tackle the extensive renovations required.

In 1990 an opportunity arose for Roundabout Theatre Company to move uptown from its Union Square location to occupy the Criterion Center on Broadway and 45th Streets. Once the Selwyn was made available - several years later in 1996 - on the cusp of losing its lease on the Criterion, Roundabout Theatre Company restated its interest in the 42nd Street buildings and was offered the Selwyn Theatre. This began a several-year process of negotiations and renovations leading up to the 2000 re-opening of the Selwyn Theatre, renamed the American Airlines Theatre after lead support from that corporation.

Roundabout hired the architects Robert Ascione, Fred Basch, and Frank Eilam and preliminary work commenced in 1997. Following a structural accident in the neighboring building in December 1998, the lobby of the original Selwyn was demolished but fortunately because the theater fell on 43rd Street side, the interiors were intact. Architects were able to salvage the dome, store it off-site, and re-install during final renovation. Most of the theater was completely redesigned during the renovation using color schemes and styles reminiscent of turn-of-the-20th century theaters. After three years of renovation/restoration, the Selwyn was brought back to its former glory and remains Roundabout Theatre Company's prized classical revival theater.
The collection consists of six series covering architectural, construction, administrative, urban planning, publicity, and photographic aspects of the renovation. The Selwyn Theatre Historic Renovation Collection incorporates institutional files as well as project files donated by the primary architect of record, Karlsberger, which ceased business operation in 2011.
Access Restrictions: The collection is open and accessible to researchers. As the materials relate to a prominent building in the Times Square corridor of New York City, particulars in design specifications, plans, elevations, and financials are restricted. For detailed information regarding use of this collection, please contact the Roundabout Theatre Archives at or by calling 212-719-9393.
Preferred Citation: Selwyn Theatre Historic Renovation Collection, Roundabout Theatre Company Archives
Types of Materials: Media, Paper documents, Publications
This portion of the Selwyn Theatre Historic Renovation consists of press clippings and reproductions of internet articles related to the revitalization of 42nd Street, primarily focused on the years 1996-2002.
This series includes architect Karlsberger Design Collective's complete job specification packets. These packets provide detailed specifications for all design aspects. Job identification numbers assigned by the architects are included in the folder description and are used throughout the documentation to connect architectural and construction phases of the renovation per construction guidelines.
Architectural specification packets, plans, elevations, technical specification notes, and drawings.
Architectural documents include plans, elevations, technical specification notes, and specification packets.
Architectural documents include plans, elevations, technical specification notes, and specification packets.
Architectural elevations, plans, and drawings depicting aspects of the renovation at staggered phases. Primarily includes demolition and proposed, non-finished drawings for A, E, L, SI, SK, and TS series; includes model renderings, lighting and electric series packets, and street zoning around 42nd Street.
Architectural elevations, plans, and drawings depicting aspects of the renovation at staggered phases; includes preliminary design through signed DOB copies. 
This series covers construction aspects of the Selwyn renovation, including contractor and subcontractor contracts, design and work order elements, correspondence, and scope of project determinations.
Construction elements (including interior/exterior), contracts, scope of work, and general correspondence.
Construction elements (including interior/exterior), contracts, scope of work, and general correspondence.
Construction elements (including interior/exterior), contracts, scope of work, and general correspondence.
Construction elements (including interior/exterior), contracts, scope of work, and general correspondence.
Construction elements (including interior/exterior), contracts, scope of work, and general correspondence.
Construction elements (including interior/exterior), change orders, bids, certificates of insurance, construction minutes, and budget adjustments (1998-1999).
Construction elements related to storefront design and door installation, includes subsequent issues with installation.
Construction samples for various build elements, includes loose terrazzo marble tiles, exposed tee systems (section 9510.02), paint samples, brass men's room signage, general toilet countertop tile, custom seating fabric swatch for fixed seating, VIP lounge furniture wood sample, Serota Sign aluminum samples, toilet accessories (section 10155.06), and ceiling panel samples (section 9510.04).
This series covers administrative aspects of the renovation, including financials, budgets, original architect and consultant contracts, correspondence, draft and finalized leases, working with the Historic Preservation Committee, and donor relations.
Box includes negotiations with sponsor American Airlines and original contracts and correspondence with architects and consultants.
Box includes full series of donor plaques, seat naming, marble step plaques, artistic sponsorship, and various aspects of the capital campaign launch (website redesign).
Box includes New 42nd Street lease finals and drafts, letter of intent, historic preservation guidelines, Historic Preservation Committee correspondence and Palisades Films documentary film documentation.
Box includes City of New York, Department of Business Services construction contracts, Capis ID PV467-A1 and PV467-AM, including correspondence and pass through documentation generated by project manager Denham Wolf.
Box includes City of New York, Department of Design and Construction pass through correspondence, budgets and finance, and fundraising.
Box includes tour and event documentation leading up to opening of American Airlines Theatre.
This series covers the preliminary work of the New 42nd Street redevelopment as it relates to Roundabout Theatre, including correspondence with developers, New 42nd Street Development Project advisory reports, Environmental Impact Statements, various news articles on the project and the zoned areas, and correspondence. Reports and documentation include site evaluations, historical facts about the Times Square neighborhood including statistics on crime and public use, historical facts about the theaters identified for renovation, and proposals and planning documentation behind Roundabout's ultimate lease on the Selwyn Theatre.
Box includes early information and planning materials generated by the New 42nd Street Revelopment Project with attendant correspondence and press.
This series contains photo and media documentation, including extensive documentation of renovation in photograph and video formats.
This box contains pre-construction, progress and final photograph slides and prints featuring interior and exterior renovation of the Selwyn Theatre.
Box contains 8 x 10 color and black and white prints of progress and finished renovation of select areas.
Box contains 2 binders with (Binder 1) 3.5 x 5 color prints featuring pre-construction and (Binder 2) 8.5 x 11 color reproductions of finished construction.