Image via New York Historical Society
The Park Theater was the first major New York City theater to open on Park Row by City Hall in 1798. The building plan was done by the architect of the Themes tunnel in London, Mark Isambard Brunel. The three-story stone structure seated an audience of 2,000. It opened with Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” on January 29, 1798, even though the theater was in an unfinished state. Tickets cost 50 cents.
The most remarkable fact about this theater (besides its seating capacity) is just how late it opened. The original Dutch settlers to New Amsterdam were strict Protestants with a distaste for theatrical entertainment. Even after the English, who have a rich theater culture, took over the colony, the strong Dutch culture prevented the construction of any theaters. In those days, it was common for theater owners to allow prostitutes to work in the top balcony during performances, and The Park Theater was no exception.
Starting with The Theater on Nassau Street in 1753, several small theaters opened up in New York as the interest in theater widened. Picking up on this interest, the actor-managers Hallam and Hodgkinson built The Park Theater. It was put in the City Hall area to make that district one of the most fashionable in the city. The theater attracted an audience from every social class, all sitting in their preferred section. The Park Theater hosted many famous European plays of the era.
The theater met an unfortunate fate when it burned down in 1820. After being rebuilt, it met its kiss of death when it burned down again in 1848.