The Shubert Organization has owned the Winter Garden Theatre longer than any of its other venues. The playhouse occupies the second American Horse Exchange, built by William K. Vanderbilt in 1896, when Longacre (now Times Square) was the center of the horse and carriage trade. By 1911, when the Shuberts leased the Exchange, horses had given way to the automobile and legitimate stage was making inroads north of 42nd St. The Winter Garden was converted into a theatre in 1911, and had brief interludes as a movie house from 1928 to 1933 when Warner Brothers leased it, and again in 1945, when United Artists ran it.
Architect William Albert Swasey converted the existing horse exchange building into a theatre by turning the showring into an auditorium with only one balcony, and decorating it with a garden motif. The existing space dictated that Swasey design a playhouse that was unusually wide (the proscenium opening is still the widest of all Shubert theatres), which brought the audience closer to the stage. Swasey left the Horse Exchange’s trusses exposed, covered the ceiling in sky blue canvas, trimming both it and the walls with latticework. Garlands and leaves entwined the box fronts and proscenium arch. The stage at one point included a water tank, and in its first decade extended a runway out into the audience, dubbed by audiences “The Bridge of Thighs.”
Twelve years after the theatre opened, Herbert J. Krapp completed a major renovation of the interior which eliminated the runway, lowered the ceiling and proscenium arch, and covered the trusses, adding elegant ornamentation and bringing the theatre more in line with the traditional Adamesque style used in other Shubert venues. In 2001 after Cats closed, architect Francesca Russo oversaw a multimillion dollar restoration of the theatre to its Twenties' glory.
The Winter Garden has traditionally been home to revues and musicals. The Passing Show (the Shubert answer to Ziegfeld’s Follies) and almost every Al Jolson musical played here. After Ziegfeld’s death, editions of his Follies played the theatre in 1934, 1936, 1943 and 1947 and featured artists such as Fanny Brice, Bobby Clark, Bob Hope, Eve Arden, Gypsy Rose Lee, Josephine Baker, and Willie Howard.
Mary Martin starred in Peter Pan (1954), followed by the premier of West Side Story (1957) with Chita Rivera, Carol Lawrence, and a creative team that included Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins. The 1960s also witnessed a number of hits. Leading the list were The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960); Funny Girl (1964), which made Barbra Streisand a major star; and Mame (1966) with Angela Lansbury.
In the 1970s, both popular and cutting-edge productions played at the Winter Garden. Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies (1971) harkened back to the theatre’s early history as home to a follies-type revue. Gypsy (1974) was revived with Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman offered Pacific Overtures (1976), and Gilda Radner came to Broadway in Gilda Radner — Live from New York (1979). 42nd Street (1980) opened at the playhouse before moving to the Majestic. In 1982 Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats premiered and ran until September 2000, the second longest-running show in Broadway history. Mamma Mia!, based on the songs of ABBA, debuted in 2001 and remained here until 2013 before moving to the Broadhurst Theatre. More recently the Winter Garden was home to Rocky the Musical (2014), Wolf Hall (2015) and Andrew Lloyd Webber's School of Rock (2015)
The theatre has a 1526 total capacity.