A Gem of the Heights: Discovering the United Palace

Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra’s Too Hot to Handel will take place at the gorgeous United Palace in Washington Heights. This stunning space was founded in the 1930s and has become a gem of Washington Heights. WHCO spoke to the marketing team at United Palace in order to learn a little bit more about the space. Read below to find out more!

WHCO: The architecture of the United Palace is absolutely stunning. Would you be able to speak a bit about the history of the architecture and what guests can look for in the architecture?

United Palace: The history of the United Palace began in 1930, when it was then one of five Loew’s “Wonder Theaters” across the five NYC boroughs and New Jersey. At the beginning of the Great Depression, with very little technology at home, theatrical entertainment was a way to escape. The purpose of the architecture was to make you feel like royalty when you walked in and transport you to another world. The interior reflects the West’s obsession with exotic lands and cultures that was fashionable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are images of Buddhas, horses, elephants, lions, dragons, deer, cherubs, and so much more! Designed by noted architect Thomas Lamb (Cort Theater, the former Ziegfeld Theater) with interiors overseen by decorative specialist Harold Rambusch (Waldorf Astoria, Radio City Music Hall), it was one of the region’s premier vaudeville and movie houses.  

WHCO: Are there any specific efforts of restoration, whether they be ongoing or complete, that aided in the preservation of the space?

United Palace: Over the past year, the United Palace has been upgraded through a series of state-of-the-art improvements, including a 7.1 surround sound system and new concert speakers. The sonic modernization of the 88-year-old theater complements earlier upgrades, such as the addition of a 50-ft screen and DCP projector donated by Broadway superstar and Washington Heights local Lin-Manuel Miranda. This puts the United Palace in league with the best in NYC big screen cinemas. On-stage productions now also take place on a newly renovated stage floor, installed with Arboron – providing a harder, cleaner surface for dance, music events, theater and more. These efforts launched the theater into its next century of service for the surrounding community, solidifying its position as a premier venue for spirituality and arts.

WHCO: Are there any interesting facts about the space, whether it be movies that were shot there, secret rooms, or legends?

pasted image 0 (1).png

United Palace: The first interesting fact is that the theater took only 13 months to build! Since the United Palace was the last of the five Wonder Theaters to be constructed, they pretty much had a solid process going. We’ve had tons of film and TV shoots at the United Palace, such as NBC’s Smash, Gotham, Netflix’s Luke Cage, and Café Society directed by Woody Allen. In addition, musical artists such as Adele, Bad Bunny, Lady Antebellum, Lenny Kravitz, Iggy Pop, and Aventura have performed on our stage!

The last interesting fact is that in 1930, the second largest theater organ company, Robert-Morton, built five identical theater organs to place in each of the five Wonder Theaters. Of the five Wonder organs, the one in the United Palace is the last organ left in its original home, completely unaltered. The others have been taken out, moved, heavily altered, or destroyed. We are currently raising funds to make this grand and thunderous instrument playable again so that it will serve as the only remaining, consistently used theatre organ in NYC and stand as a tool to educate audiences and future musicians. It has a whopping 1,799 pipes, 23 sound effects, and weights about 1700 pounds! Learn more about the progress of this restoration or adopt a pipe at restoringthewonder.org.

WHCO: The mission of the United Palace of the Cultural Arts is to “uplift, educate, and unite the Northern Manhattan community”—can you talk about the programming United Palace does and how they work to achieve this goal? Are there any specific events that the community can look forward to at the United Palace?

unnamed (4).png

United Palace: The United Palace is an inclusive spiritual center, entertainment venue, and artistic hub in the heart of Washington Heights. Our programming is a reflection of the fusion of culture, spirituality and entertainment to delight audiences of all ages and backgrounds, all over the world. We honor the building’s legacy through world-class concerts, immersive multimedia productions, monthly movie screenings, spiritual programming, dance classes and more!  

In 2019, we invite you to attend a movie screening or an Open Heart Conversation, where we explore and celebrate spiritual traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American Spirituality and African Wisdom Traditions. Experienced teachers and respected leaders come and share their teachings, helping to foster respect, tolerance and human connection.

WHCO: Over the last 6 years and with the founding of the United Palace of the Cultural Arts, programming and use of the United Palace has expanded and changed quite a bit, and continues to do so.  Can you speak a little bit about the change that occurred upon the founding of the UPCA?

United Palace: UPCA really grew out of the artistic spirit that had been a part of the church since it purchased the theater in 1969. Throughout the 70s and 80s, the church held artistic activities and regularly wove artistic expression – particularly music – into its services. UPCA has helped revitalize many of those artistic pursuits to the United Palace, welcoming new neighbors into the building with children’s programs, movies, and, of course, music. With that decades-long view, there wasn’t so much a change in programming as a reawakening of it.

unnamed (2).png

WHCO: How do you think Too Hot to Handel fits into United Palace’s mission?

United Palace: Too Hot to Handel follows in our legacy of creating holiday programming in a mash-up like you’ve never heard before,” says to Mike Fitelson, the Executive Producer of the United Palace, “Like The Hip Hop Nutcracker, Too Hot to Handel is a fun reinterpretation of an iconic masterpiece that unites diverse audiences and is accessible to people of all ages.” Heather Shea, the Spiritual Director of the United Palace added that “Too Hot to Handel speaks perfectly to our mission of uniting people through spiritual arts, particularly during the holidays.” 

The United Palace is a beautiful cultural institution--see it in real life on December 15th at Too Hot to Handel with Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra! You can get your tickets here.