The Victoria Theater stood in the shadow of the Apollo for nearly a century before getting the hook and closing in the mid-1990s. Now the Victoria, with its own celebrated history, is stepping back into the spotlight.
The building that housed the theater is the centerpiece of a $178 million multipurpose redevelopment project that will include a Marriott hotel, market-rate and affordable housing units, offices and an arts and culture center, all within two large towers on 125th Street.
The project broke ground in late April and is expected to be completed in early 2019. Only the theater’s facade and its lobby will remain from the original building. The Marriott, which will occupy one tower, will be among the first major hotel chains to build in Harlem.
Craig Livingston, a partner in Exact Capital, the developer of the project, said the group was drawn to the area by the popularity of 125th Street, the opportunity to blend a hotel and arts center and the absence of other major hotels in Harlem. Despite those factors, the Harlem Community Development Corporation insisted that some of the theater building’s facade and original features be maintained.
“This theater has been around in Harlem a long time,” Mr. Livingston said. “Some people want to use phrases like ‘New Harlem.’ It’s just Harlem. It’s just one more chapter in the history of a great community.”
The Apollo, renowned as a stepping stone for the likes of Diana Ross, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and the Jackson 5, still draws tourists, just a few doors down.
The Victoria, however, never rose to such great acclaim, though it has a long, if somewhat checkered, history in Harlem.
Built by Marcus Loew, the motion picture pioneer, and designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb, it first opened its doors in 1917 as Loew’s Victoria Theater. In an instant, it put New York’s theatrical community on notice.
The New York Telegraph described the theater as the “most beautiful and costly theater Loew ever built,” and for its debut it drew some of the era’s biggest stars, including the actress Elsie Ferguson and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle.
Star power aside, what really captivated visitors was the Victoria’s stunning lobby, with a grand staircase and large chandelier. Its dedication to vaudeville — for a time the Victoria’s performances were held in such high regard that the Apollo paled in comparison — and silent movies set it apart as well.
The Apollo opened in 1914 as a burlesque theater and by 1934 was admitting black patrons, marking a turning point in African-American cultural history.
The Victoria, however, resisted, said Michael Henry Adams, a historian of Harlem.
Using New York state’s civil rights laws, a black patron who was refused service had successfully sued the Victoria as early as 1925. Yet discriminatory practices persisted at the theater until after World War II, Mr. Adams said.
The Victoria shifted its attitude as the Apollo surged in popularity. By the late 1940s so-called race movies, which featured all-black or predominantly black casts and were marketed to a black audience, played frequently at the Victoria.
In later decades, the theater hosted special events designed to appeal to a black audience as well, including the earliest televised fights of Muhammad Ali and performances by the Dance Theater of Harlem.
Even with the shift, the theater struggled to turn a profit and in 1978 closed its doors. It reopened a few times over the next few decades and during the 1990s occasionally played host to special live shows, but it never regained any staying power.
The community has overwhelmingly supported the redevelopment and community leaders like former Representative Charles B. Rangel and State Assemblywoman Inez E. Dickens have championed the project, saying it will bring economic opportunity that will ultimately benefit Harlem residents.
For some, seeing the theater survive only as a facade and a lobby is still a loss.
Fred E. Geiger, 58, has lived in Harlem for more than 20 years and said he was one of the last entertainers to perform at the Victoria. In 1993 and 1994, Mr. Geiger, who performed under the name “Diamond Redd,” produced a series of revues that featured dancers, a big band, a chorus line, and Mr. Geiger himself singing classics by Duke Ellington and others.
By then, the theater was a mess, he said, with rubble in the dressing rooms and a run down lobby. But Mr. Geiger said he was saddened to see it disappear, and to be replaced by something with only a slight artistic presence.
“When we hit the stage, the Victoria came alive again.” Mr. Geiger said. “You could feel the spirits around us in that rickety, ramshackle, rundown theater.
“We might as well have been at the Palace.”