Central Park West at W. 79th Street,
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Opened October 30, 1900, the lecture hall of the American Museum of Natural History was designed by architect Josiah Cleaveland Cady, whose firm of Cady, Berg, & See was responsible for the entire W. 77th Street Romanesque Revival wing of the Museum.
In order to provide images to accompany lectures, the hall included a 17x35 ft. booth in the center of the balcony from which “lantern slide” images could be projected simultaneously onto left and right plaster screens, measuring 25x25 ft., or onto the large center screen which would roll out of the way when not in use. In reference to the electrical apparatus installed in the booth, The New York Times of 10/24/1900 stated, “This is one of the most perfect and elaborate that has ever been made; there is said to be nothing in the country to equal it.”
At least as early as 1912, moving pictures were being used for illustrative purposes during lectures in the auditorium. In August of 1914, what were said to be the first motion pictures taken under water were displayed in the hall. On October 27, 1927, the auditorium featured motion pictures celebrating the life of Theodore Roosevelt, on the occasion of the 69th anniversary of his birth. (Roosevelt had been a long-time supporter of the Museum, which later came to include a memorial in his honor.) The following spring, film of African mammals, including the first to show lions devouring their kill, was exhibited. In 1929, the museum showed a film entitled “What Byrd Will See in the Antarctic” free to school children accompanied by teachers or parents.
In the 1930s, the auditorium often hosted exhibitions of the Museum of Modern Art’s film library, including such classics as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Greed”. Also in that decade, the hall was the site of a fatal accident in which a laborer working on the roof fell through a skylight to his death.
The year 1959 saw the first of the hall’s several renovations. Upgrades to lighting, seating, acoustics, and audiovisual and electrical equipment were undertaken under the direction of Gugler, Kimball & Husted. In 1977, the theater again received new seating, lighting, and projection equipment, this time as directed by W.F. Pederson and Associates. (Pederson was also the architect responsible for creation of the Museum’s Hall of Minerals and Gems.)
Later, in February 1982, after approximately $1 million in modifications, the beige-and-white, neo-classical auditorium was christened the Naturemax Theater and became the city’s (in fact, the region’s) first IMAX-equipped facility. Its 66x40 foot screen, New York’s largest at the time, featured, as its first presentation, “To Fly”. That spring, the theater was the first on the East Coast to exhibit “Hail Columbia!” which followed the preparation and launch of the first space shuttle flight.
On June 2, 2002, the hall, now renamed The Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Theater, reopened after an 8 month, $8 million restoration overseen by James Polshek and Todd H. Schliemann of Polshek Partnership Architects under the design direction of David Harvey, Vice President for Exhibition, and the Museum’s Department of Exhibition. (Polshek was also the architect for the Museum’s Rose Center for Earth and Space.)
The renovation included plush red seats, carpeting, wall drapes, curtains, sconces and chandeliers to recreate the theater’s original ambiance, restoration and coloration of the architectural plasterwork, and a period paint scheme of blue-gray, green-gray, and terracotta to highlight the hall’s original structural detailing, most notably in its six grand arches and vaulted ceiling. A new entrance lobby connected the theater to the adjoining Hall of Northwest Coast Indians and featured checkerboard tiling that replicated the historic Minton tiles in that space. Also added were a new 35mm movie screen (made visible by retraction into the floor of the theater’s IMAX screen), capabilities for electronic projection, and equipment to record, broadcast, or webcast events. An upgraded audio system, designed by Rob Badenoch of the firm Shen, Milsom, and Wilke, featured more than 50 speakers, including four IMAX speaker clusters mounted on motorized winches allowing them to be retracted out of sight when not in use.
To celebrate its reopening, the LeFrak featured a three-week “Best of IMAX” film festival, which was made up of the films “Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets”, “To Fly!‘, and "Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure”.
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