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When a friend of mine was in Williamsburg late one night for a wedding, he explored the neighborhood a little bit, and told me that he stumbled upon the old Young Israel of Brooklyn I wrote about here, one of the important sites in historic Williamsburg, and had a conversation with the purported owner of the property. My friend learned from the owner that there are plans to renovate or demolish the Vien building and the Skver shul nearby and create one big building of the two old buildings, making use not only of the old spaces, but also the property in between. Here’s what my friend told me:

“I was in Williamsburg recently for a wedding at the glamorous Vayoel Moshe hall. As I hiked back to my car, I went past a building with rubbed out sign on the window: Young Israel of Brooklyn. Of course, I had to go in for a look.  Even though it was close to midnight, the place was open and guys were loitering in the hallway. I looked around for a bit, and accepted a friendly greeting from one of the loiterers As I was leaving, a guy came over to me and asked, “Did you grow up here” I told him no, I just like to look at a old shuls. Turns out, he claimed to be the landlord of not just the old Young Israel, but the whole block, in partnership with the Square collective. He gave me the brief, buffed, history of the block, then took me next door to see the original Square Bes Medrash. He said he remembers when the walls were decorated with pictures of lions (!) and that when he was a kid in the fifties the place had 35 mispallalim, and that was Square.

“Anyway both the old Young Israel and the historic first Square Bes Medrash aren’t long for the world. My new friend plans to combine the two structures and turn it into a modern synagogue complex. So say goodbye to two, historic old Jewish structures.”

I’ve done some research and I hear that there are indeed constructions plans to renovate the two historic buildings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be demolished. They may only be thoroughly renovated. I don’t know to which degree this is imminent and how much will change, but will share as I learn more. 

In a previous post, I wrote about the Satmar Rabbi’s influence on the Williamsburg community, and that his anti-zionist stance can be seen all over Williamsburg, even among non-Satmar sects, in the absence of pro-Israeli symbols in its streets. Where Israeli flags and Jewish Stars were commonplace in Williamsburg before the non-Hasidic Orthodox population left, the Jewish stars have been vanishing. I used the Star of David from the Klausenburg Talmud Torah as an example, but I will follow up on that story of the broken glasswork of that old building in another post. (I know I’ve been a little backlogged in finishing some posts I’ve been working on but I hope to get to it soon. That building is a great story!)

I have been asking if anyone can help me find a Jewish star in Hasidic Williamsburg. This week I finally found one, and even in the heart of Williamsburg, across the street from the Satmar Rebbe’s original house/synagogue on Bedford Avenue! It is on the fence of an empty lot owned by the Vien congregation. Previously, there was the big Clymer Street Shul, an orthodox synagogue, and then Congregation Tifereth Israel on that property. Since the synagogue was demolished and the construction of a Vien building was delayed due to legal disagreements, the original fence is still up.

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In the first installment, I looked at the modest Klausenburg synagogue at 131 Lee Avenue that used to be a motion picture theater. A few blocks away, at 27 Lee Avenue, we have the huge Vien Synagogue that used to be a theater too, but for its story, we need to go back much further in time. In the buildings on its street we have a long history as location for the center of social life, alternating between religious and entertainment centers.

1872: A church is built
The Vien building is often confused with a different building that stood on that block. the Lee Avenue Baptist Church was built in 1872 and it was built of corrugated iron and wood. In 1878, following a fire, its organ was rebuilt.

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1881: Church is expelled for liberalism
The church’s pastor was the charismatic and liberal Rev. John Hyatt Smith. Smith was a fierce proponent of open communion, and it got him into trouble with the Baptist association. According to Brooklyn History “Due to the liberal views of its pastor, the Reverend J. Hyatt Smith, the church was expelled from the Long Island Baptist Association and it was removed from its Lee Avenue Building.” It seems that what happened was the church lost its financial backing and with $25,000 in debt, could not afford to stay in its church.

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Smith wrote a book “The Open Book, or Light and Liberty” defending himself, and he left his congregation to become a congressman — but not before giving a fiery speech in defense of his position. The speech was covered by the Times.

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1882: remodeled as a theater
In 1882 the church reopened as a theater. It subsequently went through a dizzying array of transformations and was in different hands for different entertainment uses. Music, comic opera, etc. It was: the Lee Avenue Academy #7, Phoebus Theatre (for one season!), and the Lee Avenue Music Academy. The exterior was painted green in “an Iish Jig.” In a book published in 1901 the building’s history is dramatically recounted:It was built to accommodate the immense congregations that flocked to hear that eminent Bapist divine, J. Hyatt Smith. But changes came, and doxology turned to lighter music when the big church was transformed into a theater. And finally, came a merry Irish jig when some ambitious speculator put on a coat of green paint and made the theater over into a home for comic opera. But the merry jig did not last for long. The comic opera failed to be comic, and the big building was closed and left in gloomy silence to think over its past. 

There it stood – mutely staring into space, and showing on its face the various conflicting imprints of its history. A touch of its early religious character showed in the tower where once a bell had chimed a solemn invitation to worship. Two bill-boards told of that transition into worldliness – that lapse from reverential orthodoxy into a joyous pursuit of pagan muses; while the green paint remained.”

The following is from Brooklyn Genealogy:

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The following is from the Brooklyn Eagle, May 21, 1895:

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Sep 3, 1900  The Corse Payton Theatre Opens
In March of 1900 a colorful fellow by the name of Corse Payton bought the building, then called the Lee Avenue Academy of Music, and completely renovated it for the Corse Payton Theatre. The place was completely altered with the help of “painters, carpenters, upholsterers and scenic artists.” Payton got famous for his 10-20-30 policy. He promised seats for .10, .20 and .30 cents, making the theatre affordable to everyone. If you look at the picture of the theater below, you’ll notice its resemblance to the church – plus fire escapes and a theater hood, as well as its 10-20-30 sign. Note how enormous the inside is, and that it’s a full house!

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At the prime of Payton’s career, the theatre was the center of entertainment life. His policy worked. He consistently ran shows and his theatre was one of the most popular in Brooklyn. He himself billed himself “America’s Best Bad Actor” and was for a brief decade a dazzling star. A book was written about him titled “The Romance of a Western Boy” with all the dramatic elements of a rising star, a man who transformed himself and everyone around him.
1910: A chunk of the theater is cut off
On Feb 24, 1909 the Eagle ran notices of eminent domain, parts of Williamsburg that would be affected by the expansion of Roebling Street and other nearby streets. A year later, Feb 1910, the Eagle again wrote about the street widening, this time about its implications on the popular Payton’s Theater. “The fate of the Lee Avenue Academy in the Eastern District, where Corse Payton is at the present time exploiting one of his stock companies, is in the hands of a condemnation commission… The commission is considering the plan inaugurated by the city for the extensions and widening of Roebling Street, as one of the approaches to the plaza of the Williamsburg bridge. Under the plans for the street, one corner of the old academy will have to be acquired. Mr. Payton takes exception. If part of the building is taken, he claims that the seating capacity of the theater will be reduced and that the building for theatrical purposes will be practically worthless.” Payton wanted the city to either buy off the whole building or avoid touching it. For Payton, it was either all or nothing. But he did not get his way and a part of the theater was cut off. In late 1910 he sold the theater to William Fox, although the theater continued to operate for years later under Payton’s name and Payton had an interest in the company that controlled the property. In 1913 a settlement with the city awarded Payton $20,500 in damages.

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1910 Still Payton’s, but the glory days gone
The building, much reduced and now very dated, continued to operate for the subsequent years and run ads regularly in the Eagle for performances. Payton even returned in 1913 for a performance of “The Liars.” It now also served as a fight club and motion picture theater. In 1921 Payton filed for bankruptcy.

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Payton died in 1934 at age 66. In his obituary, the New York Times reports that he had to abandon his theater when the BMT (Brooklyn Manhattan Transit) line cut a line through his balcony. I could not find anything to support that, and some theater critics have suggested that Payton invented it to explain his decline, but my guess is the New York Times incorrectly reported the 1910 street change that cut off a piece of his theater and misappropriated it to the BMT. In any event, he was a colorful man and a part of the area’s history, and he was remembered to have earned $100,000 in his heyday, while there were times he didn’t know when his next meal would come from. But, says the Times, he was not particularly worried about it anyway and his wit became legend!

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1918 – The building to be razed and a new theater built
From the Brooklyn Theater Index, from the Weekly Chat we have an announcement that the building that was first a church, then a theatre of many names, hands and performers, will finally be demolished. “The old Payton’s Theatre is being razed and in its place will be constructed a three-story building. There will be two stories and a moving picture theatre on the ground floor. Solomon & Sons are erecting the new structure which will cost in the neighborhood of $100,000.”
June 7, 1919: Our Theater opens as Roebling Theater.
A modest notice in the Eagle announced that the “new building was begun some eighteen months ago and the lessees, Messrs. Meyers and Schneider, have spared no expense in making it an up-to-date theater… A symphony orchestra has been assembled.” This theater building, although well furnished and built to accommodate 1000 people, did not garner the same attention because it was only a motion picture house that ran first run theaters.  It did not have live performances and the theater no longer held the center of the entertainment sphere the same way.

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It was the Roebling Theater until 1936, when it was renamed Wilson Theater.

1936-1945 Wilson Theater
I know several people who still remember the Wilson Theater, both when it was in use as well as well it was boarded up and empty. Marty Frankel who lived in Williamsburg and went to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, told me that the theater admitted yeshiva students on Saturday for free, with the expectation that the religious students who could not pay on Saturday would return afterwards to pay. Marty says prizes were raffled out all the time and on the one occasion he went on Saturday, he won a football, and was left in a bind when he had to figure out how to get it home. In contrast to the Model’s Theater which was small, this theater was the motion picture house of his childhood.

1959: Vien’s Certificate of Occupancy
As you can see, the synagogue could accommodate 300 male and 434 female persons on the first floor, and 126 female but no male persons on the second floor.

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Aprox 2000 – Vien renovates the floor
For many years, the Vien synagogue had a slanted floor, remnant of its theater days. Many remember praying or studying when the floor was still tilted and the synagogue resembled an auditorium. Even today, many elements of the building still reflect its theater’s past. The aerial view shows a round back, and from the back of the building you can see the stage doors. I would guess that some of the beautiful interior design dates back to its theater days. But with the most recent Vien Rabbi, the floor was renovated and leveled. 

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A very dramatic story went down on a Friday Night 9:00pm on Lee Avenue in 1865, when the good people of the “burgh” were praying at the Lee Avenue church with the door open, because it was so hot. They suddenly heard a female shriek. They found a woman who called herself Mary with her clothes disheveled and a man next to her. According to Mary’s testimony, she was in the streets with her lover William (in “improper position” said Smith) when she was assaulted by twenty five year old Augustus Smith. Her lover fled. Smith “took liberties” with her and would have gone further had he not been stopped. Mary showed the evidence: bruises on her neck.

Smith had a very different testimony. According to him, he returned from the army to find that his wife was having an affair with William, Mary’s lover. He set out to find this man and found him at the church on Lee Ave with a girl, in an improper position. William fled, but Mary stayed, and Smith’s hand twisted in a way that accidentally resulted in bruises on Mary’s neck.

The judge didn’t buy Smith’s testimony and pronounced him guilty and sent him away for ninety days.

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I wrote about the Hanover Mansion that’s now the Vien’s Girls School a few weeks ago. I was looking for pictures of the interior, and yesterday, I was lucky enough to be allowed in to take a few. The students all seemed to know that the significance of the building is its history as the “Rothschild Mansion”. I told them that it used to be a club, but I wasn’t sure how to explain that.


One feisty little girl said “I can’t believe this was ever a mansion.” 

 
Take a look around and tell me what you think!

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The Klausenburg Synagogue at 131 Lee Avenue, Beth Baruch, used to be a small movie theater that had just one screen and 550 seats. Because there was only one movie showing at a time and it seems, from accounts of those who went, that it was a small, intimate environment. 

It was active from about the late 1920s to 1950. It was first named the Lee Theater and then became Models Theater.

The first mention of this building is in the 1921 zoning record in the Bulletin of the Board of Standards and Appeals of the City of New YorkThe architects Gronenberg & Leuchtag asked for a permit to erect a two story, 39×132 feet “motion picture theatre” on the east side of Lee Avenue and North of Hewes Street. This leads us to where the Klausenburg synagogue is today.

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It was the Lee Theater for a while and this is a little confusing because there was a large Lee Avenue Theater elsewhere earlier, which I’ll write about in part 2. 

It seems the Congress Club was also located there in the early 1920s but I am not sure what that was all about. Maybe offices.

In 1922 the organ for music was installed.

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In 1926 the manager of the theater made it into the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper when he was held on $500 bail for appropriating receipts, which he claimed to have done so he could pay the doctor’s bills for his sick wife.

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Then in 1946 the theater was again in the news because it lost its license to admit children because of fire hazards. By this time, you can already see that the same theater, located at 131 Lee Avenue, was called Models Theater.

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In 1947 the theater made several appearances in the Brooklyn Eagle’s classifieds as they were hiring for whopping salaries of $32 to $20 a week. One could even be a “candy girl!” 

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Philip Fishman remembered the Model Theater in A Sukkah is Burning: “The Model movie theater had been a highly popular neighborhood institution during my childhood. The Model was a large, old fashioned theater located around the corner from my home, on Lee Avenue between Hewes and Hooper Street. For fourteen cents I and my friends, and frequently my mother, could see a triple feature. I remember many pleasant summer afternoons laughing at the cinema…”

The theater was even sensitive to the kosher laws of the many Orthodox Jews that lived in the neighborhood. “Before Thanksgiving, the Model  would hold a raffle where they would offer a turkey as the prize. In deference to neighborhood sensibilities it was a kosher turkey. One year my mother won the turkey. She was overjoyed. She told me that this was the first time in her life that she won anything, which, upon reflection, was a rather sad statement.”

Fishman remembers when it shut its doors: “Sometimes in the early fifties, the Model closed its doors as a movie theater and the building was purchased by the Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, who converted it into a synagogue that is still active today. Needless to say, I was disappointed at this turn of events.”

The August 10, 1947 Brooklyn Eagle announced the sale of the theater to an investor.

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By September 18, 1951 we see that 131 Lee Avenue is already a two story synagogue, Congregation Beth Baruch. The Klausenburg sect invested $40K in renovations.

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Our ever faithful photographer, Irving Herzberg, even captured the entrance in 1965! The picture caption reads:
“Close-up of doorway and portion of facade of brick building with large sign, Bes Hemidrosh, a house of study of Klausenberg Hasidic group at 131 Lee Avenue in Williamsburg.”

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Sadly, I still haven’t found a picture of the theater while it was in use, but you can see from these Herzberg pictures that the theater looked quite different. It had two doors instead of one, it had an all brick exterior and it didn’t have the little hood it has now.
1965:

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photo: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/8391
Inside, the building was completely renovated, but the synagogue room still shows some signs of its previous use. The two walls to the left and right of the entrance narrow towards the Torah ark where presumably the screen was, so the synagogue is not square. There are doors at either side near the stage. The entire Torah ark wall is decorated with marble, woodwork and embroidery and is framed by corinthian columns. I don’t know if the columns are new. The ceiling has some intricate off-white wood design all over it. There are florescent lights running all around the synagogue, where the wall and ceiling meet. But except for the stairs up to the women’s balcony, everything looks polished and beautiful.