The many lives of an East Houston Street theater

For almost two centuries, 143 East Houston Street has been many things to many people, from a church to a fight club to an indie movie house.

Now it’s destined for the wrecking ball, to be replaced by a $30 million office space. Let’s pay homage to this remnant of another city by looking at all the ways it served New Yorkers for 180 years.

Some of its history is murky, such as its beginnings as a church.

It’s not clear if it started out as a Dutch Reformed Church built in the 1840s (as a 2018 New York Times piece has it) or a German Evangelical Mission Church, dating back to 1838, stated The Real Deal.

By the late 19th century, a church and two parish houses on the site were run by German evangelicals, who perhaps also used the buildings as an immigrant meeting hall.

Remember, East Houston Street at the time was squarely in Kleindeutschland—the city’s vibrant Little Germany neighborhood.

By the early 1900s, Little Germany was departing for Yorkville, and 143 Houston became a fight club.

“The building’s showbiz debut probably came in 1908, when Jack Rose, a gambler and minor figure in organized crime, painted over the religious scenes and held prizefights there, calling it the ‘Houston Athletic Club,'” stated The Village Voice in 2001.

East Houston by then was also part of the burgeoning Yiddish theatre scene.

What would come next? A nickelodeon featuring Yiddish movies and vaudeville acts—run by an enterprising guy named Charlie Steiner.

“With minimal modification, the Athletic Club became the (above right) ‘Houston Hippodrome’: The entrepreneurs converted the pulpit into a stage, put the projection booth in the organ loft, and left the wooden pews,” according the The Village Voice.

“Admission was 10 cents, with a half-price matinee. Two proto-snack bars opened to serve the crowds: a dairy restaurant in the basement and Yonah Shimmel’s knish bakery, still in operation, next door.”

In 1913, the Houston Hippodrome was the site of a deadly stampede (above left). A projectionist thought he saw smoke and yelled fire! into the audience.

Two patrons were killed. The incident made headlines for weeks as city officials recognized the building as a potential firetrap.

“The old church building is dry, worm-eaten tinder, which would need nothing more than a match dropped in a corner to spring into blaze,” the paper quoted the coroner.

In 1916, Steiner rebuilt the Houston Hippodrome, with some of the wood from the old church still remaining, according to some sources.

He reopened it a year later as the Sunshine Theater (above); the name was changed in the 1930s to the Chopin Theater.

By 1945, the curtains went down and the building was turned into a hardware warehouse (above, in the 1980s).

In 2001, a restored and refurbished theater became the much-loved Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

Today, it’s now the much-mourned Landmark Sunshine Cinema. The doors have been bricked in (above right) since 2018, and the unique facade stands defeated, awaiting its fate.

[Second photo: cinematreasures.com; third image: Evening World 1913; fourth photo: cinematreasures.com; fifth photo: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

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12 Responses to “The many lives of an East Houston Street theater”

  1. marjorie Says:

    At the time of that fatal 1913 fire, the theater’s owner was Max Steuer. Ironically, Steuer was the lawyer who defended the owners of the Triangle Factory. (Also a distant cousin of my husband’s.)

  2. Tom B Says:

    Charlie Steiner was also a sports reporter on ESPN.

  3. Julie Says:

    It would seem that the US (NY State) must have very weak or nonexistent heritage preservation laws. How is it possible that such a prominent and unique building dating, possibly, from as far back as 1838 be scheduled for demolition? I’m sorry, I suppose you address this issue here continually…? What a great shame to lose a building like that.
    On a happier note, I would like to thank you for this delightful little blog. You get to enjoy exploring all the most enjoyable, quirky and amusing bits of an incredible city, and I get to explore your blog!

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Mick, 11th and Broadway! Such a tragedy, so much history in that place.

    • Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

      Yeah I worked in the building a few years. B’way had a tiny entrance, the one on 11th St was huge and the staircase started there. Grove Press’ secret porno division Greenbriar Club was there, we took care of the daring filth they handled literary culture, sometimes the two combined. Sometimes you never knew the difference.

  5. Brian Ferguson Says:

    On the hardware warehouse photo from the 1980s, I think the graffiti says “stop gentrification”.

  6. unclejoe223 Says:

    Wasn’t this also the site (in the 60’s and 70’s of Ershowsky’s, a sort of wholesale deli, no table’s on take out? Anyone recall?

  7. The "Here Comes Another Disease We Have to Worry About" Edition Says:

    […] A look at the history of 143 East Houston, from church to fight club to Sunshine Cinema to wrecking ball. (Ephemeral New York) […]

  8. Dan Says:

    Shame that such history cannot be restored and preserved.

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