We celebrate Landmarks50 by taking a look at Joseph Papp Public Theater (often referred to as The Public Theater), which, at the time of its designation in 1965, was the Astor Library / New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater. This individual landmark at 425 Lafayette Street was built in 1849 and completed in 1881. The Public Theater is one of the most important Victorian public buildings in New York City and expertly records the phase of early Victorian architecture when architects re-interpreted classic academic forms to promote original experimentation in their design.
The three-story brick and stone building with basement and attic stories has special value because each of the three portions of its development has been carefully maintained and constituted a source of stylistic influence over a wide area. The theater is developed in a symmetrical plan in an early Renaissance manner, and much of the architectural details of the building stem from North Italian Renaissance work of the first half of the 15th Century.
In addition to its architectural significance and beauty, the building at 425 Lafayette Street has important historical associations. It was the first great classical library broadly accessible to the public and set the example for institutions like the Morgan Library and the Huntington Library. At the vote on October 26, 1965, the LPC found that, “The Astor Library has a special character, special historical and aesthetic interest and value as part of the development, heritage and cultural characteristics of New York City.”
The structure is also a pioneering example of adaptive reuse, for which restoration architect Giorgio Cavaglieri (who has northern Italian roots) is renowned. Cavaglieri was commissioned to alter the old Astor Library at 425 Lafayette Street into Joseph Papp Public Theater. Cavaglieri’s influence in the preservation movement in New York City can be attributed to his architectural renovations of historic structures, which illustrate that historic buildings could be used for both new functions and revitalizing communities. Since its opening in 1967, The Public Theater has been the only theater in New York that produces Shakespeare and the classics, musicals, contemporary, and experimental pieces in equal measure. The theater has kept up the values of its predecessor, the Astor Library / New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater, by continuing to act as a widely accessible cultural non-profit space. Today The Public Theater serves as an advocate for theater as an essential cultural force in leading and framing dialogue on important issues.