The Lyric Theater: East Avenue’s Apotheosis

There is a paradox about great architecture. Since it is so accessible to the public, those who walk or drive by it so often tend to overlook or take for granted how magnificent it truly is. That is surely the case with the Lyric Theater on East Avenue. Unquestionably it is one of Rochester’s most awe inspiring buildings. Yet situated alongside so many other gems, it sometimes doesn’t get the attention it deserves.  With that in mind, it was my goal, in a series of photographs, to capture the full glory of this Rochester masterpiece. Luckily, once I arrived, there was a staff member working overtime. With a generous and trusting spirit, he allowed me to not only take pictures, but to explore the building from the inside out.   

Photography by George Cassidy Payne

440 East Ave Rochester, NY USA 14607

According to the Lyric Theater’s homepage:

Since the early 1900s, the members of the First Church of Christ, Scientist worshiped at—and took loving care of—their magnificent building, including a breathtaking 700 seat auditorium where worship services were held and a spacious Sunday School hall with a balcony. When the members began to consider selling their beloved building, located at 440 East Avenue near downtown Rochester, they were mindful of preserving the character of this National Historic Landmark.

The Rochester Lyric Opera (RLO), meanwhile, was looking for a permanent home for its performances and educational programming. Although the RLO leadership was near a decision on another site, they jumped at the chance to view this building when they learned it might be available. One visit was enough to convince them that they were looking at the future Rochester Lyric Theater. The Christian Science congregation was delighted to find an appropriate steward for its architectural treasure.

According to the RLO:

Of the approximately 25 area public venues listed by the Arts and Cultural Council of Rochester that are actual theaters or auditoriums, only three are near 1,000 seats and only two of those are in the vicinity of downtown Rochester. None of the three has an orchestra pit, and the two near downtown do not have proscenium stages or back stage areas and are not conducive to the presentation of performing arts. Moreover, the owners of those theaters are not presenting organizations, and therefore do not attract national or international performers to their stages. The larger theaters downtown—Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre and the Auditorium Theatre—serve their audiences well, but at 2,326 and 2,464 seats respectively, they are too large to suit the needs of smaller ensembles, chamber groups, individual artists and other local, national, and international acts.

The building’s neo-classical motifs are embodied gorgeously by the stained glass windows.  

Built on the former site of the Cogswell family’s 1850s home, this Beaux Arts-style structure exhibits a strong Italian Renaissance influence. Designed by Rochester architects Gordon and Kaelber, the church was begun in the fall of 1914 and completed in 1916 at the cost of approximately $250,000. The church boasts four impressive granite pillars at its entrance. The roof is covered with Spanish tiles. Note this building’s symmetry and the leaded glass windows. It is located at 440 East Ave in Rochester, NY. (from Flickr website)

From the building’s front lobby.

The building was one of George Eastman’s major inspirations for the Eastman Theater. No feature showcases this influence more dramatically than its near-identical Palladium ceiling. They also share the same red clay-tile roofs and four massive columns.

Another view of the building’s iconic Spanish red title roof.

Wisely, the new owners have preserved the many interior features that made this a landmark house of worship for over 100 years.

Not only is the Lyric Theater an ideal performance space for plays, it is also an outstanding venue for musical recitals. More recently it has become a marquee venue for jazz at the Rochester International Jazz Festival.

A view of the building’s front from East Avenue.