All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…
Architecture has long served as a platform for status and self-expression – even seemingly humble dwellings (vernacular architecture) reveal layers of information about where the builders and inhabitants came from, how they used the rooms in their house, and even how trendy (or upwardly mobile) they might have been. Purpose-built structures, such as schools, government buildings, and churches (disturbingly, modern schools and prisons share a lot of design similarities) trumpet their intentions – as do buildings designed for entertainment.
I’ve written about historic theaters before, but I feel like historic movie theaters are even more prevalent on the American landscape. The drama starts with the facade: architecture and ornament are used to create a sense of wonder and anticipation. Arches, balconies, brackets and heavily detailed cornices – bright ornament and sculpted terra cotta – the exterior of a historic theater entices the pedestrian to leave the humdrum outside world and step inside.
And the interiors! Sumptuous, often featuring trompe l’oeil techniques to fool the eye and delight the senses, the inside of a historic movie theater could often be just as distracting as the main feature. Sadly, many of the downtown movie palaces of the early 20th century were lost in the carnage of urban renewal – and the modern cinemas, with their multitude of screens and stadium seating, lack inspirational style. The facade of a modern cinemaplex looks like everything else in its suburban sprawl environs; the movie posters hung on the outside might be the only enlivening surface detail. The seats are comfortable, though – and I totally need to sit down after paying $20 to see a movie…
On a recent trip to Cincinnati, meandering down urban streets on our way to Union Terminal to get our museum-on (and what a triumph of Art Deco style!), I spied a former movie theater. As is my wont, I had to get out and take some photographs (and then reflect on the connection between movie theaters adaptively reused as churches).
Although now home to Lighthouse Ministries Church, the former Metropolitan Theater opened for a different type of congregation when built in 1915. Located in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, the theater appears to be outside of the boundaries of that National Register of Historic Places-listed district (unfortunate for anyone who might want to use historic tax credits).
Originally constructed in the Beaux Arts style, the brick theater was designed by Rapp, Zettle and Rapp of Cincinnati (a Cincinnati “architectural dynasty”). It was remodeled with Art Moderne touches in the 1940s and renamed the State Theater. One source stated that the theater operated as a vaudeville house in its early years, and was later converted to a nightclub.
Many downtown movie theaters fell into disrepair and disuse after World War II and the blooming of the suburbs. The State Theater was renamed “Allison’s West End Cinema” in 1984, but closed its doors only five years later. Although there are some windows boarded up, entrances resized and some deferred maintenance, more than a hint of its original verve and presence remains. Cinema Treasures does a great job of presenting information about historic movie theaters around the world, and there are several organizations dedicated to preserving theaters for the future available here.
 Allen J. Singer. Stepping out in Cincinnati:: Queen City Entertainment 1900-1960