NYC's Provincetown Playhouse slated for demolition

Melora B. North

There’s a move afoot in Greenwich Village that’s not sitting too well with some of the neighbors, preservationists and community leaders. It seems that as part of their long-range expansion project, New York University’s law school has announced plans to demolish the Provincetown Playhouse, a theater with roots reaching far out into the sands at the tip of the Cape Cod, where the idea for the theater was originally hatched in 1915.

“The playhouse is considered the birthplace of off-Broadway theater,” says Andrew Berman, executive director at the Greenwich Village Society For Historic Preservation. “We were shocked to hear this. They recently made a commitment to prioritize reuse before new development, and here they are under this new set of agreements and violating them right off the bat.”

However, Alicia Hurley, vice president for government affairs and community engagement at NYU, counters this observation. “We are aware of the cultural and emotional significance,” she says. “About a year ago the law school came to us with plans for a seven- or eight-story building. We’ve been working this past year on a better solution. They’ve brought in a new architect more in tune with historic projects. He’s come up with an idea to preserve the entryway, the doors and the immediate façade, keeping the round windows.”

In short, Hurley claims the administration is working hard on maintaining an open dialogue with the community as plans are firmed up. “We are now in the process of conversing with the local community. We’ve had a host of planning sessions,” says Hurley. “It’s not the final design but what we think is a sound and good proposal. We’re still getting insight from the public and we’re very open to ideas. That’s why we came out early with this plan.”

So, why, you wonder, are the people down in New York so worked up about this slated tear-down and rebuild? Well, it’s about the history the building holds, the secrets it hides and the people who made it happen. And you can bet some people up here are pretty stirred up, too, for once an anchor has been embedded in these dunes the imprint will always remain.

Founded by playwrights George Cram Cook and his wife Susan Glaspell, the idea for the Provincetown Playhouse got off the ground the summer of 1915 when the couple was vacationing in Provincetown and meeting up with other artists such as author Mary Heaton Vorse, poet John Reed and short-story writer Wilbur Daniel Steele, all of whom expressed a desire to have their plays performed by those interested in exercising their acting wings. So successful was the summer romp that Cook decided to take the adventure a step further when he and his city pals came up from New York the following summer to perform in a fish house at the end of the wharf in Provincetown.

Grease paint raging through their systems, the lure of the lights putting these offbeat playwrights in the limelight, the group decided to take their show on the road and find a permanent home in New York City, in the Village of course.

Recognized as an icon of American theater history, the Provincetown Playhouse has not formally been designated as an historic landmark, but to some it has indeed earned the unofficial distinction. The playhouse opened its doors in the rented parlor of a town house on Washington Square in 1916. It was here that the ambitious group staged their first production on a modest homemade stage surrounded by wooden benches enough to accommodate nearly 150 people.

One-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, Floyd Dell and Louise Bryant christened the virginal boards that would become a showplace for such greats as O’Neill, Cook, Edward Albee, Glaspell and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who dabbled in acting before penning her first play.

Clearly, these young playwrights and actors were onto something: after just two years they outgrew their space and moved a few feet up the road to what had formerly been a drafty, old stable perfect for their needs — there would be plenty of space. The group, dedicated to performing only plays written by members of the Players or plays recommended by them, immediately installed benches for 200 and built a professional stage which was later dressed up with a cyclorama dome made of plaster. It was this new space that came to be known as the Provincetown Playhouse, as it continues to be called.

It was in the early 1940s that some other buildings on the block became available and the theater property, which also houses apartments and offices, grew once again to its current size that comprises four buildings. Purchased in 1984 by NYU, the project the university plans to undertake would replace the current edifice with a five-story building and a growth spurt of 4,000 square feet, adding three feet vertically. It is the intention of the university to create a façade that is reminiscent of the original one that has stood proudly for so long. A new theater will be installed, a penthouse office area added and apartments constructed.

“The building as it is is solid … not falling apart, it’s the key site in an area being considered as an historic site,” says Berman. However, according to Hurley, the structure will not support the renovations needed. “We’d have to shore up the current building. The floors can’t bear the load. There would be columns everywhere.”

But it all goes back to the history.

“The university says the era of fame was when the Players resided there, which was prior to the 1940s renovation (when all four buildings were co-joined). But the history since then is just as impressive. The playhouse has continued to be a great incubator as a critical launching pad for important, contemporary theater and people such as David Mamet and Charles Bush. We’re just mystified by their decision.”

As discussions continue and plans are made, Berman and his supporters are taking this demolition to heart and gearing up to make their voices heard. As a show of unity they will be holding a public hearing May 28 in NYC and are encouraging concerned citizens to write university president John Sexton urging reconsideration of the demolition. For more information, go to

A couple of trivia tidbits: a spicy kiss delivered by Mary Blair to Paul Robeson’s lips in an O’Neill play solicited death threats, so controversial was the daring action. Another nod to impressive was when Charles Gilpin appeared in O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones,” which eventually went to Broadway, marking his place as the first African-American actor in a major dramatic role.