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Wednesday, November 16, 2022

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Saturday, November 12, 2022

History of the New York Temple


Guest post by Leroy

History of the New York Temple

     Most modern Jehovah’s Witnesses will have heard of the Bible House, the Brooklyn Tabernacle and the Brooklyn Bethel. However, hearing the name of the New York Temple probably does not bring anything to mind. Even Watchtower history enthusiasts know more about the Chicago Temple, thanks to a booklet produced by the Chicago Bible Students in 1914 with many photos of its interior and exterior. However, the New York Temple, seemingly buried in theocratic history, has a distinction that no other building has – that of being the first theater to present the Photo-Drama of Creation.

     January 11, 1914 was the day chosen for the premiere of this revolutionary production, which, despite the fact that even today it still has not received due recognition from the film industry, stands out for being the first motion picture production in history to combine color film sequences with synchronized sound, all at the same time. But, what do we know about the venue where this historic production debuted?

Photo 1 – New York Sun ad, Jan 11, 1914, Page 13.

Photo 2 – Full Page ad in the New York Evening Telegram, Jan 11, 1914

A Rough Start

     The theater was located at 22-26 West 63rd St., about halfway between Broadway and Central Park. It was originally designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb for the Davenport Stock Company, taking inspiration from a theater in Berlin. Butler Davenport, a real estate man, bought the land from William Brennan with the idea of building a theater. It was originally to be called the “Davenport Theatre”. Construction began in April 1909 and it was announced that it would open to the public in December of the same year. The theater would have capacity for 800 spectators. However, on November 15, the New York Times reported that the construction had stopped, and Butler Davenport had disappeared, even his name had been removed from the Real Estate Company in which he was a partner. Due to Mr. Davenport’s financial difficulties, construction was halted when the stage and balcony had barely been built.

Photo 3 – Cliping from The New York Times, Nov 15, 1909 Page 9.

     In 1910 the unfinished building was put up for auction and sold for $250,000. From then on it was bought and sold several times, without any of its owners being able to finish the construction.

The Society Takes Over

     In 1913, when the Bible Students were planning the production of the Photo-Drama, they were looking for a central location in New York City where they could present the show to as many people as possible. To that end, they purchased the unfinished building through the Peoples Pulpit Association and hired architect Erwin Rossbach to complete the work. Rossbach modified Lamb’s original design to make it more sober and functional, and the auditorium was modified to be more suitable for lectures and movie projection, rather than plays, as had originally been intended. The capacity was increased to 1,400 seats.

Photo 4 – New York Tribune, June 3, 1910, Page 7

     Since the property was purchased, it was advertised in the Watch Tower magazine, as well as at assemblies.Some of these comments emphasized how expensive it was and yet that it had been purchased for very little money.They also highlighted the relevance it would have, being used exclusively for the new production that was in the process of seeing the light, the new Photo-Drama.

     Below are some of the comments that appear in the 1913 convention report regarding the new Temple and its future use:

     Page 66:

Before appearing in the main auditorium of the hotel, Pastor Russell granted an interview to local newspaper correspondents, at which time he confirmed the report that be would relinquish the use of the Temple, in New York, the latest structure the Bible Students are building, turning it over to the picture people, believing that “The Photo Drama of Creation” is destined to be a very important factor in the advancement of Bible study.


It is also a known fact that the work of Pastor Russell is doing is carried on by voluntary contribution. As these contributions increase the work grows larger, and any years the contributions fall off the work is proportionately restricted. Personally, he has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to furthering an interest in Scripture, and his determination to relinquish his new edifice in New York, which, it is estimated, including the ground, will cost no less than $350,000, is just what was to have been expected of him when he saw an opportunity to increase interest in the Bible.


“Moving pictures have proved a very valuable medium in education,” he told the newspaper men this morning. “It will be equally valuable in teaching the Bible. Day and night in the Temple, therefore, without interfering with the Sunday service, there will be given these pictures from the Bible, the ‘Photo Play of Creation’ having exclusive use of the Temple, which is centrally located. One must not forget the fact that one can reach the Temple in New York from any part of the city for five cents. That is an important thing to consider. The people of New York will have a full opportunity of seeing Bible moving pictures, receiving Bible instruction, free of charge.”

     Page 71-72:

“The Temple of Creation”

The Temple, Sixty-third street just off Broadway, New York City, is to become the home of the “Photo-Drama of Creation.”

The New York contingent of the present Brooklyn Tabernacle congregation, over which Pastor Russell presides, built and expected to make the New York “Temple” the “Hub” for pastor Russell’s future worldwide evangelistic efforts.

The plan to give over the “Temple” for the exclusive use of the “Photo-Drama of Creation” was unreservedly endorsed as a better plan by Pastor Russell, a thorough believer in the efficiency and wonderful power of printer’s ink, moving pictures and talking machines.

(Press Clippings)


The Motion Picture Department to Have Exclusive Use of This Magnificent Structure

Pastor Charles T. Russell informed the delegates to the International Bible Students’ Association convention today that he had decided not to occupy the magnificent Temple, now in course of construction, Sixty-third street, near Broadway, New York, which was undertaken for the express purpose of being his headquarters, but would turn over for the exclusive use of the “Photo Drama of Creation” department, the moving picture enterprise in connection with the promotion of Bible teaching, this structure.


Including the ground, the New York Temple is valued at $350,000. For several years there has been a demand made on Pastor Russell that he move his headquarters from Brooklyn to New York, it being argued the people of that city would attend his sermons in larger numbers if there was a place centrally located where they could go to hear him, and with that idea in view the site for the Temple was purchased and the erection of a modern edifice undertaken.

One can reach the Temple from any part of New York, either by the subway, surface lines or elevated railroad, for five cents.

The motion picture department will be one of the most important factors in the advancement of Bible teaching, so far as this organization is concerned, and, realizing their value as an educational medium, Pastor Russell today told the delegates that he would not occupy the Temple, but would give it to the “Photo Drama of Creation,” enabling them to run there, day and night, a continuous Bible moving picture show.

     Pages 83-84:

I should tell you another thing, just very briefly, and that is about the New York Temple. You will hear about it somewhere else, and I will tell you now. The New York Temple is a building that came into our possession in a very remarkable way. It looks as though it was the Lord’s providence, I do not know anything else. We had been trying to secure the use of some building in New York for public meetings, and they were all so thoroughly taken up with business of one kind or another that it seemed not to be successful. And then when we had about given up all hope here we came into possession of a building partly finished and practically bought for no money, bought on credit and practically self-supporting—it seems too much of a miracle to tell you all that; it just reads like a miracle. The Lord is not working any miracles, I guess, but it is pretty near like a miracle, and so now that building already has mortgages on it and the mortgagees are going to finish the building and give us possession of it. We will have the whole Temple. It will be very nice and hold a good number of people—not as many as we could wish it might hold, but probably a little over 1,300 is the capacity of it. We would have liked it to be at least twice that large, but we cannot have everything we want and we are thankful for what we have.

This matter of the moving pictures and the teaching of the Word of God pictorially to the people has appealed to me so strongly it is my present thought that I will use all my influence with the Society, and I believe it will be successful, so that building may be entirely devoted to the Picture Gospel—the proclamation of the Gospel through pictures to all the millions of people who are living in New York and vicinity, and to the other thousands who may be coming there day by day, and that every day in the week, Sunday, Monday, etc., morning, noon and night, there will be the Gospel being preached there, and we expect that the house will be crowded all the time. The question is between using the Temple that way or using it for the voice preaching and we concluded how this would reach more people than we could use with our voice, or that of any other of the brethren could reach. But we have to say that we are not to count our chickens before the eggs are hatched, or at least showing some signs of it; but the building is nearing completion and we expect to have it ready for operation this summer—or at least by September, and expect to have the first exhibit, or one of the first exhibits of this new moving picture arrangement that you have voted for and endorsed. I was glad to know of your endorsement; I believe it is one way in which the Lord is going to bring a knowledge of His Bible to more people than ever before—all classes of people and especially Christian people that should be deeply interested in the Word of God, or what the Bible says.

Page 135:


“The International Bible Students’ Association has just donated its Sixty-third street temple in New York to the public as an agent for uplift. It will be a moving picture theater for the public. Moving pictures—the right kind of moving pictures—are certainly agents for uplift, they inspire thought. In our temple we will present films showing the process of creation from nebula to flying machines, three times a day. Other rare films, presenting Bible incidents, views of foreign lands, etc., will be shown every day of the year. We must all get together and push enlightenment along.

     The July 1913 Watchtower also commented on this:

“Later, when endorsing the Convention’s resolutions, the Association’s President declared that he would advocate the use of “The Temple,” West Sixty-third Street, near Broadway, New York City, as the permanent home for the Gospel in pictures—“The Photo-Drama of Creation.” He believed that its use on seven days of the week, and three times daily, would prove a wonderful work of grace to many—much more so than to use it merely one day of the week for preaching.

This led to an explanation of what “The Temple” is. Almost providentially a property worth nearly half a million dollars had come under the Association’s control for Gospel work. True, the property is mortgaged for nearly its worth; but no matter: the low interest will be a very moderate rental. Besides, while The Temple will be the home of “The Photo-Drama of Creation,” the Exhibition will have numerous duplications, for the preaching of the Gospel far and near”.

     The company in charge of the construction promised to have the Temple ready by December 7, and plans were made for the dedication program to be held on that day, as announced in the Watchtower December 1, 1913, page 354:


The Contractors promise to have “The Temple” ready for our use on Sunday, December 7. The services for the opening day will be a little out of the ordinary. So far as the building is concerned it will be Dedication Day. As respects the Congregation it will be Thanksgiving Sunday. The program will include the entire day. The opening service will be at 10.30 a.m. The Pastor, Brother Russell, will give the address.

At 2 p.m. there will be a Symposium in which several Brethren of the PEOPLES PULPIT ASSOCIATION will participate, the topic being “THANKFULNESS.” Its various phases will be considered.

At 4 p.m. there will be a general Praise and Testimony Meeting.

At 8 p.m. the Pastor, Brother Russell, will give an address, closing what, we trust, will be a very pleasant and very profitable day of spiritual refreshment.

As it is anticipated that numbers of THE WATCH TOWER readers will want to be present at these services, coming from surrounding cities and villages, it is proposed that no public advertising be done, so that we may have plenty of room for comfort and fellowship. Of course, the Brooklyn Tabernacle will be closed for the entire day.

All WATCH TOWER readers and their interested friends are cordially invited to this house-warming. “Seats free and no collection.”

When sending remittances please remember to make them payable to Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.

     850 people attended the dedication program that day, and from there began preparations for the premiere of the Photo-Drama, which took place on January 11, 1914.

Photo 5 - This kind of coupon appeared in different newspapers, featuring a drawing of the fa├žade of The Temple.

Photo 5.5 - Ticket to see the Photodrama at the New York Temple (thanks to M.G. for providing the photo).

     The temple was mainly used for the Photo-Drama presentations, but it was also the headquarters of the New York congregation, and CTR gave speeches there every first Sunday of the month. He received up to 1500 attendees, having to reject many.

Photo 6 – The New York Temple (Colorized).

     The Temple became the main meeting hall for the IBSA in New York, due to its central location and to it having larger capacity than the Brooklyn Tabernacle’s auditorium. In 1916 it was announced that the Brooklyn Congregation would now be known as the New York City Ecclesia because the main services had moved from the Tabernacle in Brooklyn to the Temple in New York City.

     When CTR died, funeral services were held at the New York City Temple on Sunday, November 5, 1916. The service was conducted by J. F. Rutherford, who, in addition to his own remarks, read the very sermon which Pastor Russell had penned and which he had intended to preach there in New York Temple that very night.

     After Russell’s death, J. F. Rutherford continued the custom of speaking at the Temple on the first Sunday of every month, beginning on Sunday, February 14, 1917. In addition, Photo-Drama performances continued to be held at the site.

Photo 7 – In a 1916 map, the place appear as a Church.

The Beginning of the End

     Financially speaking, from 1914 to 1917 the Organization had a very hard time. The production and running of the Photo-Drama resulted in huge expenses as well as the acquisition, remodeling and maintenance of the Temple. After Russell's death, Rutherford took care of the situation and made decisions to heal the Society's economy, and among those decisions was the sale of several properties, including most of the land they owned in the United Cemeteries, and also the NY Temple.

     It appears to have been a last-minute decision, as various events were held at the theater throughout 1917, some even weeks before the sale of the property, such as a two-day assembly on October 27 and 28, as well as the memorial service for the anniversary of CTR's death, held on October 31 at the same location.

Photo 8– Last known photo of the building while still in use by the Society, April 1917

     The December 15, 1917 Watchtower announced the disposal of the building, which was Rutherford's last move to clean up the Society's finances:

We are pleased to announce that the Brooklyn Tabernacle and the Bethel Home are free from all debt or encumbrance, and since the disposition of the New York City Temple, which was heavily mortgaged, the SOCIETY has no debts upon which it is required to pay interest.

For all the Lord’s leadings and blessings in this behalf we are indeed grateful, and to Him we give all the credit and praise for every feature of the service.

     The buyer was Maurice Runkle, who had it in mind to remodel the place to use as a theater. A year later, his plans had not yet materialized, and he decided to put the property up for auction. The estate of the original owner, William Brennan, recovered the property with a bid of $200,000 on June 14, 1918.

Photo 9 – The New York Tribune, Jun 15, 1919, Page 5

     The theater underwent severe renovations, as it was designed to be an auditorium, not a theater, and things like the orchestra pit had been sacrificed in favor of more seats. Also the stage was too shallow. In order to transform the place into a suitable theater, at least three rows of seats had to be removed to install a pit. Renovations continued even after the theater was opened to the public.

     On November 23, 1919, the name “Sixty-Third Street Music Hall” was chosen for the new theater, and it was announced to open on December 14.

Photo 10 – New York Tribune, Nov 23, 1919, Page 45

Photo 11 – New York Tribune, Dec 15, 1919, Page 11

     The theater had little success, and on December 25 it reopened as a children's movie theater. This was not successful either, and the place was only used for most of 1920 as a concert hall because theatrical productions were not very interested in it.

     On April 2, 3 and 4, 1920, the organization rented the place to hold a 3-day assembly in conjunction with the commemoration of Christ's death.

     The March 15, 1920 Watch Tower announced the event:


A three-day convention, April 2, 3, and 4, will be held in the Sixty-third Street Music Hall. This building was formerly the New York City Temple, where the Photo-Drama of Creation was first shown to the public. Brother Rutherford and several Pilgrim brethren are expected to address the convention.

The Music Hall is reached by taking the West Side subway (commonly called Seventh Avenue subway) local train to Columbus Circle, then by walking a short distance north to Sixty-third Street, then west on that street a very short distance to the convention place.

The convention Auditorium will be open at 9 a.m., Friday April 2. All visiting friends will kindly come direct to the convention building, where they will receive assignment of rooms.

Memorial service will be held on Friday evening. The Sunday afternoon meeting will be for the public.

All correspondence regarding the convention should be addressed to the Convention Committee, T.M. Bedwin, Sec’y, 124 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, N.Y.

     As far as I know, this is the last time the venue was used by the organization, however, the “Temple” was just about to earn an indelible place in Broadway’s history.

A new Beginning

     In the last part of  1920 producer John Cort purchased the theater, opening it on January 31, 1921 as “Cort's 63rd Street Theater” with the play "Mixed Marriage." After a few performances the show moved to another theater downtown, and the name was changed back to 63rd Street Music Hall.

     In May 1921, a musical with a talented black cast was unable to secure a booking in a mainstream Broadway house, and they were forced to settle for the out-of-the-way 63rd Music Hall, which had been closed since February. The premiere of this show, entitled "Shuffle Along", took place on May 23, 1921. It was a surprise success, and became the smash hit of the season achieving the remarkable number of 504 performances. It was also the first black show to be accepted among white audiences, and incidentally put the 63rd Music Hall on the map. It was a landmark in African-American musical theater, and it is credited with inspiring the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s. The show has had several revivals and adaptations up to 2016.

Photo 12 – A 1921 map showing the place as a Theater

     After “Shuffle Along” closed in 1922, the theater was sold, remodeled and renamed multiple times. Finally, in September 1941, after having had more than 10 different names in less than 30 years, it closed its doors for good. The place remained abandoned until its demolition in 1957.

     Today that section of 63rd Street is called Sesame Street, and where the Temple was once located there is a park, which is part of Lincoln Plaza.

A Few More Photos

Photo 13 - Stage in 1921 during the Shuffle Along era


Photo 14 - Interior view (unknown year)


Photo 15 - Inside plan in 1921 during the Shuffle Along era

Photo 16 - 63rd Street in 1926 – Temple highlighted


Photo 17 - The Temple was known as the Coburn Theatre in 1928. (NYPL)

Photo 18 - Exterior, 1936 (GMU)


Photo 19 – As the Experimental Theatre, in 1936 (GMU)

Photo 20 - The place abandoned in 1949.


Photo 21 – This is how the spot looks like today.




·         NY Times Tue Apr 20 1909 Page 9

·         NY Times - Mon Nov 15 1909 Page 9

·         New York Tribune - Fri Jun 03 1910 Page 7

·         NY Times - Wed Oct 1 1913 Page 4

·         The Sun New York Tue Nov 18 1913 Page 13

·         The Sun New York Sun Jan 11 1914 Page 13

·         Times Union Brooklyn NY 12 Jan 1914 Page 2

·         The Sun New York Sat Jan 17 1914 Page 10

·         NY Tribune Sat Jun 15 1918 Page 5

·         NY Herald Sat Jun 15 1918

·         New York Tribune Sun Nov 23 1919 Page 45

·         NY Tribune Mon Dec 15 1919 Page 11

·         Daily News NY Mon Dec 22 1919 Page 15

·         New York Herald Fri Dec 26 1919 Page 9

·         NY Herald - Sun Jan 11 1920

·         NY Daily Herald Thu Jan 15 1920

Watchtower Publications:

·         Souvenir Convention Report 1913 p. 66 Noted Bible Teacher Receives Very Enthusiastic Reception on His Arrival in the Valley of Vapors.

·         Souvenir Convention Report 1913 pp. 71-72 “Photo-Drama of Creation”

·         Souvenir Convention Report 1913pp. 83-84 Subject: “The Harvest; Its Privileges Great and Small”

·         Souvenir Convention Report 1913p. 135 Tacoma, Washington

·         The Watch Tower,1913 7/1 p. 203 Pertle Springs and Hot Springs

·         The Watch Tower, 1913 12/1 p. 354 Announcements

·         The Watch Tower, 191312/15 p. 370 Announcements

·         The Watch Tower, 1914 10/15 p. 308 View from the Watch Tower

·         The Watch Tower, 1915 3/15 p. 96 International Bible Students Association Classes

·         The Watch Tower, 1915 4/15 p. 127 Memorial Supper Reports

·         The Watch Tower, 19157/1 p. 194 Announcements

·         The Watch Tower, 191512/1 p. 368 International Bible Students Association Classes

·         The Watch Tower, 1916 1/1 p. 2 Announcements

·         The Watch Tower, 1916 4/1 p. 98 Announcements

·         The Watch Tower, 1916 5/1 p. 136 Memorial Supper Reports

·         The Watch Tower, 1916 6/1 p. 162 Announcements

·         Souvenir Convention Report 1916 p. 321 Pastor Russell Honored at Bier by Followers—Hundreds Attend Service for Prominent Bible Exponent in Northside Carnegie Hall—Many from other cities.

·         Souvenir Convention Report 1916p. 323 Memorial Services, Metropolitan Auditorium, Chicago, Nov. 12, 1916, in Memory of Pastor Russell, by Dr. L. W. Jones

·         The Watch Tower, 191612/1 p. 383 Pastor Russell’s Successor Judge Joseph F. Rutherford

·         The Watch Tower, 1917 3/1 p. 75 At the Temple—Sunday, Feb. 4

·         The Watch Tower, 1917 11/1 p. 322 Announcements

·         The Watch Tower, 1917 12/15 p. 375 1917—Annual Report—1917

·         The Watch Tower, 1920 2/15 p. 50 Announcements

·         The Watch Tower, 19203/1 p. 66 Announcements

·         The Watch Tower, 19203/15 p. 82 Announcements











·         Van Hoogstraten, Nicholas – Lost Broadway Theatres, 1997, Princeton Architectural Press, Pages 122-125