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425 Lafayette: The Public Theater.

  • William B. Harris - Walking Tour

Unlike some of the venues in which William Harris saw plays, the Public Theater was well on the beaten path. The Victorian building, the work of architects Alexander Saeltzer, Griffith Thomas, and Thomas Stent, grew in stages between 1849 and 1890. It began as the Astor Library, a charity created by the will of furrier and New York City real estate magnate John Jacob Astor. Astor’s heirs placed the building between Colonade Row, the interconnected homes of members of the Astor family on Lafayette Street, and the immigrant neighborhood growing up to the east. In 1911, the Astor Library’s collection became part of the foundation of the New York Public Library, and the building became home to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. In 1965, HIAS left the building. Theatre impresario Joseph Papp purchased it as the winter home of his Public Theatre, which had already established its summers of Shakespeare in Central Park; in 1971, New York City purchased the building and leased it back to Papp. It was among the first group of buildings to be landmarked. Harris visited the venue repeatedly, reviewing a revival of Solomon Ansky’s The Dybbuk, and new works by Nilo Cruz, John Guare, David Hare, Michael Hastings, David Mamet, and comedian and banjoist Steve Martin. He also saw the work of a playwright with a special relationship to Marymount Manhattan College. Elizabeth Swados won an Obie for Runaways, a Chorus Line-like work that drew on runaway youths’ experiences to construct the performance. She also wrote two plays, Missionaries and Resilient Souls about four American churchwomen murdered by government forces in El Salvador in 1980. One of those women was Ita Ford, a member of MMC’s Class of 1961.