From the Ground Up,
or Field Notes Towards a Theater Geology

Derek Miller
Harvard University

This is a slideshow version of a presentation delivered April 13, 2019 at a symposium celebrating the career of Joseph Roach.
Use the right arrow key to advance, left arrow key to go back. Best viewed in full screen.
Do not cite without express permission.

This is the history of a plot of land.

480 Million Years Ago

Sedimentary rocks along the Eastern border of what is now called North America metamorphose into a mica schist.

Geological Map

This schist, famously strong enough to hold up a skyscraper, is the bedrock of what we now call Manhattan.

Hundreds of millions of years pass.

9000 Years Ago

Humans settle the area, then abandon it.

6500 years ago

Humans resettle the area.

The Mid-Sixteenth Century

Up to 15,000 inhabitants, the Lenape, live in seasonal settlements throughout the region we now know as New York City.

1609 Extrapolation

European explorers arrive.

Manatus, 1639


Dutch colonization moves ahead in earnest as Peter Minuit purchases Manhattan from the Lenape for 60 guilders-worth of goods.


Andries Hudde becomes the first private owner of land on the island.

Estates appear throughout the southern part of Manhattan.


The Dutch lose New Amsterdam to the English.


New York's Colonial Governor grants over 500 acres in the western half of Manhattan to five men: Johannes Van Brugh, Thomas Hall, Egbert Wouters, Jacob Leanderts, and Jan Vigne.

Vigne buys 150 acres from the group for an unknown price.

Over the following century, that property gets conveyed to various successors and purchasers.

ca. 1684: Jan Vigne → Jacob Cornelisse Stille

1697-1711: Jacob Cornelisse Stille → Wolfert Webbers + Grietje Stille

1759: Webbers Heirs → Joseph Haynes

1784: Haynes Heirs → Medcef Eden


The heirs of Medcef Eden, the land's owners, fall into debt.

A complex series of financial and legal proceedings follow.


Eden's property winds up in the hands of William Cutting and

Astor Portrait

John Jacob Astor

Astor and Cutting divide their new lands between themselves.

Astor's section of Eden Farm sits just west of a major up-island thoroughfare, the Bloomingdale Road, and extends nearly to the Hudson River.

Astor Tract


The Commissioners' Plan inaugurates Manhattan's gridded street system with rectangular city blocks.

Commissioners' Plan

The Astor-owned Eden Farm encompasses many blocks, and at least one entire: a block bounded on the sides by Eighth and Seventh Avenues, and south and north by 44th and 45th streets.

Astor Tract


All four of those roads have been opened.

Astor family surveys show the block divided into 64 equally-sized lots.

Astor Lots


Astor conveys his Eden Farm holdings to three of his grandsons.

Astor Tract, Divided

Our block will end up owned by John Jacob Astor III, and then his son, William Waldorf Astor.

JJ Astor III Portrait WW Astor Portrait


Bloomingdale Road is widened in this part of town to 75 feet.

With its new dimensions, it gets a new name: Broadway.

1852 and 1867

Atlases show Astor's blocks under-developed compared to other nearby blocks.

1852 Atlas


1867 Atlas



The Astor family begins devising leases to lots on the block.

Henderson Lease

For instance, James Henderson leases lot 55, 242 West 45th Street, for twenty years at $400 yearly rent.


A birds-eye map of Manhattan shows the block covered in buildings.

1879 Birds-Eye Map

The buildings, brick, some with stone fronts, are single- and multi-family dwellings.

1885 Bromley

And a church on 45th Street.

The city labels it Block 45.


The city renumbers it as Block 1016.

1891 Bromley


Oscar Hammerstein opens the Olympia, the first theater built north of 42nd Street.

Hammerstein's Olympia

Block 1016 is across Broadway from the new theater.


The Interborough Rapid Transit Company opens a station at the newly named Times Square.

1904 IRT Lines

William and Frank Muschenheim build a grand hotel on Block 1016's Seventh Avenue side: the Hotel Astor.

1908 Bromley
1905 Hotel Astor


William Waldorf Astor begins buying leased lots back for between $8000 and $14000.

This continues over the next five years.

1911 Astor Purchases


The Hotel Astor expands towards Eighth Avenue.

MacCoun, Manhattan in 1609 (1909)

Photographers capture the new construction.

Hotel Astor Expansion, 1908
Hotel Astor Expansion, 1908
Hotel Astor, 1909


Astor leases lots 14-20 and 46-51 to Central Theatres Leasing & Construction Company for $42,000 per year.

1912 Bromley
Shubert Brothers

The company is owned by the Shubert Brothers, Lee and JJ.


Twinned theaters rise on Block 1016.

1914 Shubert Theatre

Sam S. Shubert Theatre

1914 Booth Theatre

Booth Theatre

1916 Bromley


The Shuberts build two more theaters on the lots immediately west of their extant buildings.

1917 Broadhurst Theatre

Broadhurst Theatre

1919 Plymouth Theatre

Plymouth Theatre

1920 Bromley


The Shuberts and Irwin Chanin team up to form a new company, Royma.

Royma buys the remaining lots on the west side of Block 1016 for $7.5 million.

They build the Lincoln Hotel along Eighth Avenue and three theaters behind it.

1927 Royma Agreement
1927 Bromley

On 45th Street

1927 Royale Theatre

Royale Theatre

1927 Theatre Masque

Theatre Masque

On 44th Street

1926 Majestic Theatre

Majestic Theatre

1930 Bromley


The Chanins sell their stake in the theaters, now valued at $3.4 million, to the Shuberts.

1929 Royma Sale


The Shuberts go bankrupt and their business into receivership.

1931 Shubert Bankruptcy


For $400,000, the Shuberts buy back everything they owned, including all seven theaters on Block 1016.

1933 Shubert Repurchase


The Astor estate sells the lots beneath the Shubert, the Booth, the Plymouth, and the Broadhurst to the Shuberts for $3 million.

The Shuberts now own all seven theaters on Block 1016 in fee simple.

1939 Shubert Booth Purchase 1939 Plymouth Broadhurst Purchase


The Hotel Astor is demolished.

1967 Shubert and Booth

The city passes a new zoning law creating a Theatre District.

The law also offers extra floor space to any new building containing a theater.

1967 Zoning Law


A commercial building, One Astor Plaza, opens where the Hotel Astor once stood.

One Astor Plaza

In it, a new theater: the Minskoff, owned by the Nederlander Organization.

Minskoff Theatre

Variety reports that the Shuberts are in talks with a Wall Street firm to sell their theaters on Block 1016 and rent the lots for new office towers.

MacCoun, Manhattan in 1609 (1909)


The Bijou and Morosco theatres on the north side of 45th Street, and the Helen Hayes on 46th Street, are demolished to make way for John Portman's hotel project.

MacCoun, Manhattan in 1609 (1909)

A zoning law amendment grants new protections to prevent the destruction of 44 other extant Broadway theaters, including the seven Shubert houses on Block 1016.

MacCoun, Manhattan in 1609 (1909)

1987 and 1988

Block 1016's Shubert theaters are declared landmarks.

MacCoun, Manhattan in 1609 (1909)

They cannot be demolished, but they earn expanded transferable development rights. (Development rights are the right to develop floor space in a building, calculated as a multiple of the lot's area. Owners of landmarked properties could transfer unrealized development rights across a street or intersection.)

Block 1016 and its neighbors are already fully developed.

The Shubert Organization sues the city, arguing that landmark status illegally undermines the salability and value of their property.

MacCoun, Manhattan in 1609 (1909)


The Shuberts lose their lawsuit.

MacCoun, Manhattan in 1609 (1909)


In a long-sought victory for the Shuberts, the city expands the area to which transferable development rights can be sold to include the entire Theatre District and an Eighth Avenue corridor.

MacCoun, Manhattan in 1609 (1909)

2007 to 2014

The Shubert, Booth, Broadhurst, Schoenfeld, and Majestic theaters transfer 415,671 square feet of undeveloped floor area to nine sites for a total of $105.9 million.

MacCoun, Manhattan in 1609 (1909)

In the same seven-year period, the Shubert Foundation---by then the sole owner of the Shubert Organization---gives over 500 theater companies in the United States a total of $170 million, an average of $21 million annually.

MacCoun, Manhattan in 1609 (1909)


New York City's Department of Finance assesses the value of the seven theater lots on Block 1016 at $52.5 million.

MacCoun, Manhattan in 1609 (1909)

From the Ground Up,
or Field Notes Towards a Theater Geology