Each year at our Annual Meeting and Village Awards ceremony, Village Preservation presents one unique award: the Regina Kellerman Award, named in honor of Village Preservation’s first Executive Director. Regina was a passionate advocate for historic preservation, and this year’s awardee is a golden example of her vision for preserving the architectural and cultural heritage of our neighborhoods. This year’s much-deserved recipient is La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, for the beautiful and lovingly executed restoration they’ve undertaken of 74A East 4th Street, the theater’s first home and its current permanent home.
Founded in 1961 by theatre legend Ellen Stewart, La MaMa is the only original Off-Off-Broadway venue still in operation. Ellen established La MaMa as a haven for underrepresented artists to experiment with new work, without the pressures of commercial success.
The experimental theater originally operated out of the basement of an East 9th Street tenement, and was nomadic for the first few years of its existence. That is until Stewart purchased the building at 74 East 4th Street in 1967, rescuing it from possible demolition. The building was in rough shape when she purchased it: no roof, no flooring, and no back wall. Through the vision and care of Stewart, an extremely passionate and charismatic woman who was also the theater’s original artistic director and producer, La MaMa grew to become a pioneer and powerhouse of the Off-Off-Broadway movement in the East Village.
74 East 4th Street was designed by German-born architect August H. Blankenstein and constructed in 1873. This four-story red brick-clad building was originally known as the Aschenbroedel Verein (“Cinderella Society”), a professional orchestral musicians’ association formed in what was then known as Kleindeutschland.
After 1892, the building was owned by the Gesangverein Schiller, one of the city’s leading German singing societies, and the main façade was altered to feature three composers’ busts over the second-story windows, as well as the notable cornice with its broken pediment as the crowning element of the building. Folk motifs, such as inverted hearts, are also found throughout the façade, melding German Renaissance Revival and neo-Grec style ornamentation. The building was designated as an individual New York City landmark in 2009.
The theater has recently reopened following a $24 million renovation by architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle. The interior was gut renovated to accommodate updated technology and state-of-the-art theater amenities, as well as ADA accessibility, and the original façade was thoughtfully and painstakingly restored and celebrated. The cast-iron pilasters were restored, as were all of the decorative elements, a number of which had been eroded or lost over time. These were painted a historically accurate light cream color, which makes a beautiful contrast to the original brickwork.
A new glass-and-aluminum storefront was installed to replace the later brick infill that had been there for some decades. Now the ground floor harmonizes with the historic façade above, while the lobby interior is visible to passersby, inviting them into the theater.
La MaMa’s philosophy is all about access to the arts, and now the building boldly embodies this ethos. The theatrical company centers its work around the belief that space is vital to the creative process, and art can be a powerful vehicle for communities to come together.
A building-wide data network also gives artists the tools to support new forms of inclusive art-making and exchange beyond the four walls of the space. They can now draw national and international audiences with live stream and hybrid events, and expand cross-cultural engagement across great distances, with the historic building still as its core.
Ellen was often asked, “‘How does [La MaMa] keep going?’” She replied: “I know at this moment, in every corner of the earth, there are people whose energies and heartbeats, some part of which is directed towards La MaMa. With that kind of thing holding us up, honey, we don’t sink.” Thanks to her pioneering spirit and that of her successors and stewards of the company, the restored theater will be kept afloat for years to come.
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