The RKO Keith is one of NYC’s most infamous abandoned buildings.
Update at bottom
Located at a main intersection in ‘downtown’ Flushing, Queens, The RKO Keith has stood abandoned and severely neglected for well over 20 years now – a fact that is almost surreal given its prime location and current real estate value (assessed at $2.5 Million in 2013 – Rated as worth $5.6 Million by PropertyShark – and recently sold for $30 Million).
Built in 1927, the theater originally opened as the ‘Keith Albee Vaudeville Theater, though it was soon simplified to ‘RKO Keith’. It cost $750,000 to build and it was run as a ‘subscription house’ – whereby patrons would acquire a subscription of season tickets.
Slowly the RKO Keith fell on hard times. According to the NY Times “…by the 1970’s, the Keith’s 3,000 seats were carved up into a triplex. It had once drawn people from all over New York. Now prostitutes and pot smokers gravitated to it.” (Note – I found no evidence of any conversion to a triplex inside the building)
In the early 1980s it came up for Landmark Preservation consideration. In 1984 just the lobby was landmarked – a shortsighted decision in my opinion. The theater was closed in 1986 after being bought by Thomas Huang. Huang proceeded to neglect the building – and was even accused of setting it on fire.
To understand the current condition of the RKO Keith, one should know about the owner that destroyed it. Tommy Huang is a legendary character in the realm of Queens Real Estate and was the subject of a 1997 NY Times profile. He was both celebrated for his foresight in building up and building on empty lots around Flushing, and hated for the mafia style tactics he used and was rarely arrested for. Here’s but one example: “On the proposed site, in 1982, a Molotov cocktail was hurled into a restaurant, destroying several shops. The bank that owned the site had refused to sell it to a group of investors headed by Mr. Huang. After the fire, Mr. Huang upped the bid and the bank sold.”
This would not be the only time Huang and Fire went hand in hand. “…in 1990, a fire was set inside the locked theater. It was like 1982 all over again: fingers were pointed and accusations printed in the local press, which Mr. Huang denied. Again, no one was charged. ”I can’t prove he was responsible,” Mr. Stavisky said, ”but wherever Huang went, fire followed.””
Eventually Huang was arrested and indicted on one count of endangering the public health in the third degree by allowing ‘more than two hundred gallons’ of petroleum to leak from a furnace in the RKO in July 1996.
His misdeeds have never stopped. In June of 2013, “Huang and his wife, Alice, pleaded guilty in Queens Supreme Court to charges of felony securities fraud. The couple agreed to a deal that prevents them from working for at least five years in New York construction and real estate. The ban, in combination with a fatal 2011 accident at one of Huang’s Queens development sites, could put the final nail in the coffin of Huang’s storied 35-year career.”
After Huang finally sold the building, it has bounced between ‘developers’ who have all announced they would build something new on the site, and never have. Just this last December, it was announced that a new developer would try their hand at building a 17 floor mixed use apartment tower on the site, after buying the building for $30 Million. With the economy on an upswing, perhaps something might finally happen with this project, though nothing has changed with the building in the nearly 5 months since the new owners bought it.
Just getting into this building is an adventure. You have to know where to go and be ready to climb. It’s not a mission for the faint of heart.
Once inside, you are greeted by an absolutely devastated theater. The seating area has been completely cleared and filled with piles of debris. The stage is nothing more than a gaping hole that was burned to ash. The landmarked lobby is currently a dark foreboding place whose beauty is obstructed by a cheap plywood entryway running through the center of it. Upstairs, everything is similarly gutted – no chairs in the mezzanine, and the nothing but destruction of the office space above the lobby. Graffiti writers like Klops & Plasma Slugz have taken to decorating this grim place, often with some seriously elaborate pieces.
It is at once both sad and amazing to wander this building. Sad that it was destroyed by one of the biggest and worst types of vandals ever known (Real Estate “Developers”), and amazing in that it still more or less stands – destroyed but hauntingly gorgeous in its final hours.
Update – Feb. 17 2016.
Apparently the building is for sale once again.