An Inside Look At The Stanley Theater’s Celestial Restoration

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inside stanley theater journal square jersey city

When it opened in 1928, The Stanley Theater in Journal Square was one of the greatest old movie palaces and the second-largest on the East Coast, next to Radio City. Presenting both orchestral and stage shows plus Hollywood new releases, it quickly became a cultural hub in the bustling Journal Square neighborhood.

“This was a refuge for the people of Jersey City,” notes historian Richard Polton.

the stanley theater journal square under construction
© Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania.

Designed by architect Fred Wesley Wentworth in a grand Venetian theme, the theater continued to thrive into the 1960s, with entertainers ranging from The Three Stooges, Jimmy Durante, Tony Bennett, Janis Joplin and Dolly Parton, to The Grateful Dead. By the 1970s, however, the theater, like many of its kind, suffered from disrepair and became a grindhouse.

vintage stanley theater photos jersey city
© Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania.

The spectacular elements of the space left to be forgotten, the intricate metalwork was painted over and the Wurlitzer organ removed before it shut down for good on April 20, 1978. But in 1983, the neglected theater was purchased for $1.8 million by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society from Delaware Corporation, for use as an Assembly Hall for Jehovah’s Witnesses. The story of its renovation, an unfolding of willing hands and minds, transformed the once-entertainment hall into a sacred place of worship.

stanley theater restoration
Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses
stanley theater lobby journal square
Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses

In 1988, the theater, which is on the NJ Registry of Historic Places, underwent an initial renovation phase, but the latest, completed in a nine-month period from 2012-2013, has restored even more value and splendor to the space. Situated in direct proximity to The Loews, the two exemplify the polar opposite results of restoration productivity, raising the question, once again, of funding for such a massive undertaking of a historic space.

stanley theater watchtower
Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses

“We are largely self-financed,” said Robert Warren, media consultant for the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses, noting that the project was funded by individual donations from Witnesses across the world. “Whoever wants to build a tower must first count the cost,” he cited biblically, attributing the successful funding to strategic planning. “Rather than start and escalate, we evaluate first.”

Over two thousand Witness volunteers from across the United States worked together on the large scale project, with work completed through volunteers only with the exception of contractors for only high-risk safety needs. Pooling from various skill-sets, training often occurred from Witness to Witness.

journal square history
Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses

“It was wonderful to see the willing spirit of them,” said Chris Simonson, Operations Manager. Simonson noted that one volunteer from Italy knowledgeable on precious metals restoration was vital to revive the copper and brass finishes that had been painted over in thick layers.

The team also found objects that were there already, but tucked away. “A lot of small storage rooms were boarded up,” Simonson said. “We found areas people hadn’t been in for years and 30-year-old chandeliers in boxes, which were in good condition, but dirty. We discovered copper scrollwork on the side of the building, under paint, which we thought was woodwork at first.”

stanley theater journal square seats

In peeling away layers, the team was able to preserve elegance but infuse it with comfort. For example, in refurbishing the seating, the group kept in mind that people would be seated for longer periods during congregation meetings than originally, when the theater was used for entertainment. “We lost 600 seats but kept the beauty,” Simonsson said.

“We know it is a privilege and we consider it an honor to be here,” Simonsson added. The attention to preserving the original design is evident from the facade to the stage itself. At the exterior entrance, a shiny copper marquee spans above a pair of solid brass doors, with arched windows above it.

“They really did build this to last,” added Warren.

stanley theater journal square lobby

The three-story lobby is fixed with columns, a center staircase with trompe l’oeil alabaster handrails and balusters, original gas lamps (since converted to lightbulbs), velvet drapes, and stained glass windows of faux “Chartre Blue” in the foyer. Biblical murals by Hungarian painter Willy Pogany originally adorned the ceiling and walls and were completed in the 1988 renovation.

tiffany chandelier waldorf astoria stanley theater
Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses

Another focal point of the lobby is the thirteen-foot crystal chandelier suspended from the second floor. Sourced from New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in the 1920s, it dates to circa 1890, and is illuminated by 144 bulbs that reflect onto 4,500 hanging crystal teardrops. The fixture is maintained with twice-yearly cleaning. A direct gaze up at it reveals its snowflake shape. On the floor beneath it, is the original compass chiseled by hand, whose tiles were chipped out and placed back in, during the renovation.

jehovahs witnesses jersey city
Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses

The theater itself, seating over 3,000, features an outdoor courtyard theme of grottoes, arches and columns and a proscenium arch modeled after the Rialto Bridge. Sourced materials include marble from Italy, Texas and Vermont, limestone from Indiana, and granite from Maine to face the Corinthian columns. On the sides of the theater, functional, original antiquated lion head fountains date to the 1920s and the “exit” signs were kept and restored. The copper overlay on the doors were polished by hand to bring back gloss, the ticket booth ceiling is original, and the grand staircase in the lobby was modeled after the Vanderbilt Mansion in Newport, RI.

stanley theater journal square lobby staircase

stanley theater journal square plasterwork

“We automatically assign a sacredness to the building because of our worship,” said Warren, of Witness Assembly Halls. “Having this space adds to the grandeur of why we are here.”

stanley theater journal square stage

stanley theater journal square scene

stanley theater journal square sign

Indeed the religious group has utilized the space for its unique needs. Events are held in 13 languages and The Stanley is a worldwide destination, hosting a meeting with 44 countries in October. The fine acoustics are a plus for the music-heavy congregations, and beneath the stage, where the orchestra pit once was, is a Baptism pool.

stanley theater journal square seating

The expansive, domed, white plaster, eighty-five-foot ceiling once permitted an open sky effect with a “stars and moving clouds” show that was created by a projecting device—the “Brenkert Brenograph.” Some of the points of light in the ceiling still work today, creating a twinkle-star-like effect, invoking congregation members to feel they are gazing up at Heaven itself.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. I have been there. It is so beautiful, just what Jehovah’s house should be like. If u can please go you will love ❤️ it

  2. When I was young age of 15 years old I remember I want with my own father and mother and we watch Arabic movie in the theater I wasn’t Jehovah witness Yet but later on in life when I was young in the age of 19 I believe I was newly baptized I help around by dusting or shining I use to take the bus after my work to Jersey City from North Bergen I did not have a car on the time I use to have fun and now I’m 53 mother of 3 when I enter to Stanley theater I still get amazed over it when I see it, it’s so beautiful and it give me all the memory back when I was young and what did I do in there and I learn a lot and I meet so many different people in it I still love it and I always will.

  3. Roberta Hughes
    I have been there also and the picture do A lot but you have to go see it for yourself.
    The wonders of what Jehovah’s organization can do with his spirit.

  4. I used to visit my cousin in Jersey city and I remember what the theater looked like, the whole area was in terrible shape!! The Brothers and Jehovah’s Holy Spirit not only brought the Stanley back to it’s original beauty and beyond, it also revitalized the whole area!!! All to the praise of JEHOVAH

  5. This building is amazing I wish I could go there and see it. It’s so beautiful when our brothers and sisters get together in an organized manner and accomplish what Jehovah wants them to do … Only in Jehovah’s organization !!!!

  6. This is one of those….drop your jaw and walk around with your mouth wide open places….everywhere you look…the beauty and detail of yesteryear shines thru. Had the privilege of attending a assembly there in April 2016. If you would like to attend one of the day long assemblies…go to JW.org…scroll to the bottom of site and look for ATTEND A MEETING….type in Jersey City, NJ and it will pull up the site, and you can locate a date it is open for assembly. Enjoy!

  7. It truly is a delight to visit The Stanley. My family have twice had the privilege. What a beautiful shout of praise to our god, Jehovah.

  8. 2009 in Long Beach for the International Assy. from New Zealand. This wasn’t on the original tour plans, but managed to squeeze it in, & what a blessing. Incredible amount of restoration & I was amazed at the “outdoor
    Plazza” feel in the main auditorium, even with the cloud effect. Could have spent much more time there if we had it. Sadly didn’t. Would highly recommend making the trip if one is anywhere near it.

  9. My daughter and I 20 years ago when we started in the full-time ministry took a trip to see it. It was so beautiful! Autumn was only 15 years old and I won’t say how old I was but it was a spectacular place to see! We both are still in full-time service, her and her husband doing special work traveling and I’m serving in the Philippines. So thankful we made that special trip together from Hickory, NC to see this handiwork in New Jersey that glorifies Jehovah and shows what his worshippers can accomplish with his spirit!

  10. I tiled some of the walls around the ice creme machine.
    Probably remodeled by now but I really enjoyed the previlege of working there.
    Truly a gem of a building for worship

  11. This place is beyond beautiful. However, it saddens me to see inequality when our brothers in Africa and elsewhere have no real Kingdom Halls or proper chairs to sit on, and here we are in North America. I am not proud but very saddened. Jehovah sees this.

  12. My buddy and I were the first to get baptized there – the week after the dedication – in 1985. It will always hold a special place in my heart. A good friend – much older – told me he had been an usher there over 50 years earlier when he was just a kid He said we restored it’s beauty, maybe even a bit better He was so sad that it had fallen into disrepair but glad that it was restored to such a elevated purpose – assisting people to learn about Jehovah God. I’ve had the chance to work there many times and even wander all the nooks and crannies. It never ceases to bring a little awe and a pause to think, view and be thankful

  13. Fortunately, I was baptized there in 1989. It was the most amazing thing I had ever experienced (my baptism) because the building was awesome then!

  14. actually the Grateful Dead played there September 26, 27 & 28, 1972
    The concert on the 27th is memorialized as Dick’s Picks #11
    My wife was there for one of those shows and i drive by every day now
    Glad to see what it looked like inside

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