In 1914, philanthropist sisters Alice Lewisohn (1883–1972) and Irene Lewisohn (1892–1944) bought a lot on the corner of Grand and Pitt Streets on New York City’s Lower East Side and founded the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1915. The modest three-story red brick structure, designed by architects Harry C. Ingalls and F. Burrall Hoffman, Jr., showed both motion pictures and theatrical performances.
By 1920, the Playhouse became renowned for its avant-garde productions, often incorporating dance, music, and poetry, and for its popular revue, The Grand Street Follies. Many early 20th century modern dancers and artists found a professional home at the Neighborhood Playhouse, including Martha Graham and composers Ernest Bloch, Kurt Schindler, and Louis Horst. Other notables whose works were produced at the Neighborhood Playhouse include Agnes de Mille, Laura Elliott, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. This experimental theater and two other off-Broadway “little theaters” (Providence Playhouse and Washington Square Players) were to form the foundation for modern American performance.
The Playhouse acting company officially disbanded in 1927 and the building was renamed the Henry Street Playhouse. The Lewisohn sisters and Rita Wallach Morganthau went on to establish the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in 1928. Irene Lewisohn would also found the Museum of Costume Art in 1937, which would later merge with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is now known famously as the Met Costume Institute.
In 1938, it was the site of the premiere of Aaron Copland’s opera The Second Hurricane, directed by Orson Welles.
In 1948, Alwin Nikolais was appointed director of the Henry Street Playhouse, where he formed the Playhouse Dance Company, later renamed and known as the Nikolais Dance Theatre. It was at Henry Street that Nikolais began to develop his own world of abstract dance theatre, portraying man as part of a total environment. Nikolais redefined dance, as “the art of motion which, left on its own merits, becomes the message as well as the medium”. It was also at the Henry Street Playhouse that Mr. Nikolais was joined by Murray Louis, who was to become a driving force in the Playhouse Company, Nikolais’ leading dancer, and longtime collaborator.
In 1970, the New Federal Theatre (NFT) was founded by Woodie King, Jr., originally funded by the Henry Street Settlement along with a small grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. The theatre has maintained its production and training programs at Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center.
The 1975 addition to the Abrons Arts Center was designed by architect Lo Yi Chan of the firm Prentice & Chan, Ohlhausen. The architects sought to sensitively respond to the scale, proportion and mass of the older structure without imitating the neo-classical style of the Playhouse.
Henry Street Settlement restored both the interior and exterior of the Playhouse in the 1996 and 2015.