Owner of Loews Canal Theater Discusses Plans

Earlier this week, we spoke with Chinatown banker Thomas Sung, the owner of the Loews Canal Theater (31 Canal Street),  about his plans for the recently-landmarked building. Last year, Sung and CREATE, an arts organization in Chinatown, announced they were looking into the possibility of turning the long-shuttered theater into a Chinese cultural center.

After testifying before the Landmarks Preservation Commission in June, Sung told us a structural engineer had just finished evaluating the feasibility of building a 12 or 13 story residential tower over the 1920’s-era movie palace. In a phone conversation on Tuesday, he summed up the results of that study and talked about what’s next in the planning process.

Since the theater is a large open space with no columns, Sung said, the high rise would need to be supported by, perhaps, 10 large steel beams around the perimeter of the original building. It would be a complex engineering feat, he believes, and an expensive proposition.  There’s also the question of stability: engineers would, of course, want to be absolutely certain the structure could support the new building and not endanger the historic theater below.

Sung said he’s spending some time to think about how to proceed. Once the engineering and cost issues are resolved, they’ll begin to work through what kind of facility would make sense on Canal Street. CREATE, the Committee to Revitalize and Enrich the Arts and Tomorrow’s Economy, has all but abandoned hopes of using the theater. Racing an end-of-the-year deadline to use a planning grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., they have turned their attention to other sites. Sung said he still believes there’s a great need for a Chinese cultural center, and thinks the Loews Canal is the right place for it.  But, at the same time, he indicated, the project is a long-term endeavor

Architectural rendering produced by CREATE's design firm.

Sung suggested he might form a non-profit organization for the purpose of building the cultural center.  Public funds would very likely be needed for the project, he said.  Sung bought the Loews Canal at least 25 years ago, with the idea that the parcel on which it sits would one day become a development site. He is willing to make sacrifices for the good of the community, but would almost certainly want help from government and/or private foundations.

In protecting the theater’s Canal Street facade, the landmarks Commission noted, “the Loews Canal was the most architecturally distinguished (theater of its era on the Lower East Side and) remains the best preserved to this day… Its lavishly decorated facade…  is still a riot of sea monsters, griffins, eagles, garland, foliate and other lavish ornaments.”

Sung, who’s in his 70’s, said he’s gratified the commission voted in favor of landmarking.  He suggested (half jokingly) the theater’s next act might not occur in his lifetime. “My daughters might see this through,” he said.

Amy Chin, head of CREATE, told us she’s happy the Sung family is still working towards reopening the Loews Canal to the public. While her organization was forced to move on, Chin said she hopes the theater will one day be a resource for the Chinatown and Lower East Side communities.