Williamsburg project will adapt historic theater into apartments, keep striking exterior

williamsburg theater
A former theater on South 6th Street in Williamsburg is set to be converted into apartments.
Photo by Susan De Vries

A 19th century Romanesque Revival-style building on Williamsburg’s South 6th Street, built as as theater and until recently slated to be razed for a 26-story hotel, will keep its striking exterior and be converted to a 29-unit residential building.

The preservation of the historic building at 107 South 6th St. is likely due to its current zoning, which stops developers from being able to build anything larger on the site without undergoing a rezoning. The four-story former theater is already larger than what would typically be allowed on the site in the mixed commercial residential area, according to PropertyShark data.

While the little-known 1891 architectural gem hasn’t been landmarked by the city, it was declared eligible for the National Register in 2019. The National Register notes of the building: “Distinctive features include the rusticated corner piers, turrets, round and square medallions, and round-arched windows on the upper floor … This is a relatively rare surviving building type.”

williamsburg theater building
The building features unique architectural details.P hoto by Susan De Vries

The report also says the building is representative of local industrial architecture of the late 19th century and early 20th century in Williamsburg. Its arched windows on the top floor, turrets, and decorative terra-cotta medallions, combined with its functional form, give the building a strong and elegant presence on the block.

Depending on the adaptive reuse plans for the building, and how much they will affect the historic facade (among other things), the developers could qualify for tax credits for the project.

Joseph Lentini, a member of building owner Williamsburg Workshop LLC, did not respond to request for comment about the conversion. But Nikolai Katz of Nikolai Katz Architect, the architect of record for the project, confirmed the facade will remain the same while the interior will be renovated.

The building, which most recently housed a fitness center, opened in October of 1891 as the Bedford Avenue Theater and was designed by William H. Gaylor. The new theater replaced a brick stable previously on the site that was torn down to make way for the new venue.

newspaper article covering the opening show at the theater on October 5, 1891 (a comedy translated from French) described the building as a “handsome and cozy playhouse,” “admirable in architectural design,” and “in all ways beautiful.” “Architect Gaylor has given to Brooklyn a playhouse of which it may well be proud,” the reporter wrote.

In 1893 the building was renamed the Empire Theater, and by the fall of 1901 the theater was closed. The stage and the back section of the building were sacrificed for the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge, which almost abuts the rear facade of the building.

runner on williamsburg bridge
The rear section of the building was destroyed for the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge. Photo by Susan De Vries

1916 historic map shows that the truncated building was being used as a garage and repair shop, a use that continued through the 1920s and 1930s. In the middle to later half of the century, it became the headquarters and warehouse of Fruitcrest Corporation. The following year, the current owners seem to have taken ownership of the building, along with the neighboring three-story mixed-use building at 109 South 6th Street, city records show. In 2006 the deeds to both properties were transferred to Williamsburg Workshop LLC for no cost, with Joseph Lentini signing for both companies.

In 2007, the building at 107 South 6th St. was converted into use as the Soma fitness center and the exterior was restored. After a more than 20 year run, the gym closed around the start of 2020, online reviews show.

In April 2020, an application for a new-building permit was filed for a 26-story, 242-unit hotel that would have replaced 107, 109, and 111 South 6th St, as well as 394 Bedford Ave., according to DOB records.

The building would have had 94 underground parking spaces, commercial offices on four floors, and 20 floors of hotel rooms, the application said. However, the 255 feet tall hotel, designed by Achimaera Architecture, was ultimately rejected by DOB.

The upcoming residential conversion will see the building house 29 apartments and 5,444 square feet of commercial space, according to an application for an Alt-1 permit submitted December 14 but not yet issued. It specifies no work on the facade or exterior of the building. Shimon Kleinman is listed as a representative for the owner on the permit application; city records show the building is still owned by Williamsburg Workshop LLC.

Meanwhile, an application for an alteration permit has also been filed for the neighboring 19th century storefront building at 109 South 6th Street.

historic building
Permits have been filed for renovations at the South 6th Street building. Photo by Susan De Vries

The permit says the work will include interior renovations on the second and third floors, but with no change in use, egress, or occupancy. The ground floor of the building had previously been used as a cafe for the gym next door.

Like the project at 107 South 6th St., Nikolai Katz is listed as the architect behind the designs and Shimon Kleinman is listed as the owner’s representative.

The block of South 6th St. between Bedford Avenue and Berry Street has relatively few new buildings on it and some of the older structures on the north side of the street don’t seem to be getting that much attention from landlords.

The buildings on the north side appear to have just a handful of owners, with those between 91 and 99 South 6th Street all associated with LLCs registered to the same address in New Rochelle, N.Y. The LLCs took ownership of the five sites in 1985, according to city records.

A version of this story first appeared on Brooklyn Paper’s sister site Brownstoner