Did you know…that Lower Manhattan was once home to the city's premiere theater district?
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Lower Manhattan was home to a burgeoning theatrical center, with theater houses cropping up around City Hall on Nassau and Beekman Streets and Park Row, among other areas. Featuring everything from opera and ballet to comedies, as well as musicals and Shakespearean plays, theater grew in popularity throughout the city. However, by the mid-1800s, theater houses migrated progressively north to the more affluent districts of Manhattan, settling in present-day midtown.
During the early 18th century, European influence in the form of a steady influx of immigrants brought small-scale theatrical performances to downtown street corners, homes, and alehouses. These frequent, crude renditions eventually led to the introduction of formal production theaters, such as the Nassau Street Theatre, in 1750. Deemed the original home of opera in New York, the Nassau Street Theatre was known for performing English ballad operas and eventually expanded to include other genres. In response to its growing popularity, the original Nassau Street Theatre was torn down only to be rebuilt at a larger, more ornate scale in September 1753.
Unfortunately, the theater only lasted another year before being purchased by German Calvinists in search of a place of worship, but interest in the theater had spread downtown and before long a new venue opened on the corner of Chapel Street (later Beekman Street) near Nassau Street in 1760. Displaying a host of dramatic performances and very little, if any, opera, the Chapel Street Theatre remained in production until 1765, when it was destroyed during the Stamp Act riots.
But by 1767, the financial district had again welcomed another theater -- the John Street Theatre, located at 15-21 John Street. The theater showcased an array of performances by the American Company of Comedians before it was taken over by the military during the British occupation, during which it was renamed the Theatre Royal and used for amateur theatricals. In 1777, the theater reverted back to its original name and was used again for comedic performances until it was replaced by the new Park Theatre and appropriated by a neighboring feed store in 1797.
In 1798, the Park Theatre became the premiere performance venue in New York City. Located south of City Hall Park on Chatham Street (today's Park Row), Park Theatre was conceived by a group of area actors. Operating under the name of the "New Theatre" to differentiate it from the John Street Theatre, the elite venue was modeled after the renowned London theaters with a large pit, four tiers of private boxes, and a top gallery or balcony that together held up to 2,000 spectators.
While the Park Theatre was the most prestigious in city, it was not exclusive. Audiences of all types filled the stone structure to observe performances including drama, circus, opera, and dance. Each class maintained a designated section, with the "mechanics" (working class) filling the pit, the upper classes and women occupying and the private boxes, and the lower class men, blacks, and prostitutes -- who regularly conducted business there -- loitering in the balcony.
As with many of its predecessors, the Park Theatre was plagued with a series of misfortune. In 1820, it was destroyed by fire. Though owners erected the new Park Theatre, which is credited for the first performance of an Italian opera (in 1825) on the same site, it too was set ablaze and burned down on December 16, 1848, eventually being replaced by stores. (Fires during the era were quite common. The Bowery Theatre, built in 1826 at 46 Bowery, burned down and was rebuilt five times in 1828, 1836, 1838, 1845, and 1923, until a June 5, 1929, fire closed the theater for good.)
Though later theaters, such as the Bowery Theatre and Castle Garden Theatre (1839), remained in operation through the early 19th century, by the 1830s many theater companies had relocated further north to eventually settle in what became today's Theater District in midtown.