An Improbable Cradle of Rock Music
NOW it is cloaked in white netting, its movie-set facade as secret as the fraternal society that built it in 1927. But later this summer the ghostly renovation wrapping will come off the spectacular Pythian Temple, at 135 West 70th Street, one of the greatest productions by the theater architect Thomas Lamb.
The Knights of Pythias was founded in 1864, taking the name from the legendary friendship of Damon and Pythias.
Fraternal orders flourished after the Civil War, and by the 1910s and ’20s, the Elks, the Knights of Columbus, the Masons and other organizations felt the need for huge lodges, sometimes with hotel rooms. One of these is the Level Club of the Masons, on 73rd Street west of Broadway, Romanesque in style with a cascade of setbacks, completed in 1927.
The Pythians completed their high-rise house that same year. About 150 feet tall, it was built mostly in buff brick and terra cotta. Sprinkled over the surface is some of the most brilliant polychrome terra cotta in New York, but because it is hidden away on a narrow side street, many veteran New Yorkers have never seen it.
The Pythians had an eye for drama, and hired Lamb, a Scottish-born specialist in magnificent movie palaces. The architect created a blockbuster synthesis of Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian motifs evoking the grandeur of D. W. Griffith’s Babylonian movie set for his 1916 “Intolerance.”
Lamb’s $2 million center, to be shared by the 120 smaller lodges in the city, had 13 lodge rooms, a gym on the roof and bowling and billiards in the basement. Lamb was fortunate that the lodge rooms did not require windows, and the plain walls gave his structure a brute strength rare in architecture.
The Pythian Temple’s ground-floor colonnade, with Assyrian-type heads, is centered on a brilliantly glazed blue terra-cotta entry pavilion. The windowless middle section steps back at about 100 feet up, with four seated Pharaonic figures similar to those of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. Two more setbacks rise to a highly colored Egyptian-style colonnade, and to giant urns carried by teams of yellow, red and green oxen. In a rendering, the urns are lighted with fires.
Published photographs of the lobby show a double-height space in what appears to be polished black marble, with Egyptian decor, like a winged orb, or perhaps Isis, over the doorway.
Various organizations rented space at the temple, including, in 1928, the Women’s 13 Club, whose dinner there featured spilled salt, smashed mirrors and ladders to walk under.
In 1930, the Level Club went into foreclosure, but the Pythian Temple had a more solid foundation. Indeed, in 1932 The New York Times reported that the trustees planned to turn over the operating profits to unemployment relief. That doesn’t quite square with a 1940 tax exemption case in New York State Supreme Court, which found that the temple had had no net income since the day it opened. The clubhouse was then valued at $625,000.
Nevertheless, the Pythians somehow hung on, renting space to Decca Records. In 1954, Bill Haley and His Comets recorded “Rock Around the Clock” there, and Buddy Holly, Sammy Davis Jr., Billie Holiday and others are also said to have used the studio.
In November 1956, the singer and actor Paul Robeson spoke at the temple at a meeting of the National Council of the American-Soviet Friendship Association, and according to The Times “hailed the achievements of the Soviet Union.” He and others leaving the building, including clueless Pythians, were bombarded with eggs, tomatoes and other missiles by protesters incensed by the brutal Communist suppression of the Hungarian revolt only days before.
The Pythians departed in 1958, leaving behind halberds, staffs, magic wands, coffins with skeletons, lanterns, thrones and Egyptian garb, The Times reported. The grand structure was bought by the New York Institute of Technology.
In the early 1980s, the architect David Gura oversaw a radical conversion of the Pythian Temple into apartments, a devilishly complicated alteration because of large beams, the windowless facade, and double-height lodge and other rooms. He inserted banks of windows into the facade as gently as possible, and added greenhouse-type structures on the upper terraces.
The white netting, put up for a facade restoration project by Luke LiCalzi Engineers, should come down by the end of July. Then, the Pythian Temple will rock the block again.