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Designing the Spaces of Moviegoing in North Carolina: The Movie Theater Architecture of Erle Stillwell

"We sell tickets to theaters, not movies" --Marcus Loew

Biographical Profile

(note: information about Stillwell's life and career is taken from William Mitchell's catalog of his architectural drawings (Mitchell 2006).)

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

Erle Stillwell (1885-1978) was born in Hannibal, Missouri, and moved with his mother to Hendersonville, N.C., in 1903. In 1907, he married Eva Smith, the daughter of a local real estate developer. He studied architecture at Cornell University and returned to Hendersonville to practice there in 1913. For the next decade, Stillwell took advantage of the area's growth: he designed homes, commercial buildings, schools, churches, and government buildings. He also invested in the local property market. The real estate bubble burst in the late 1920s, however, leaving Stillwell heavily in debt-a situation exacerbated by the 1929 stock market crash.

Stillwell's first movie theater project was the renovation of the Queen Theater in Hendersonville in 1921. In 1924, he designed the Rex Theater there. This project brought Stillwell into contact with the Wilby-Kincey organization, which owned and managed movie theaters throughout the South in association with the powerful Paramount-Publix movie theater circuit. Wilby-Kincey set up a number of subsidiaries, including North Carolina Theatres, Inc., the corporate entity for which Stillwell worked on more than thirty projects in North Carolina from 1936 to 1949. In all, Stillwell would design more than sixty movie theaters, all but a few for Wilby-Kincey, Stillwell's single most important client, whose contracts helped his practice stay afloat during the Great Depression.

After the entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941, Stillwell's opportunities to work on movie theater projects radically diminished with the imposition of wartime construction restrictions and material shortages. The Carolina Theater in Chapel Hill, N.C., opened in the fall of 1942, but no additional Stillwell theaters opened in North Carolina until after the war ended in 1945.

The need to seek military and large-scale government construction projects led Stillwell to join forces with architectural colleagues in Asheville, N.C., to form Six Associates. Stillwell remained in Hendersonville, but the firm's main office was located in Asheville. The Hendersonville office closed in 1953.

Stillwell's association with Wilby-Kincey was revived after the war, but he played a smaller role in the merged firm, which secured work designing hospitals, university facilities, and manufacturing plants. By the early 1950s, Stillwell had turned over most of his design and drawing tasks to other members of the firm. He retired in 1970, after a career of more than half a century, and died in 1978 at the age of ninety-three.

The Stillwell Theater Drawings and Their Inclusion in "Going to the Show"

Several thousand original Stillwell drawings and blueprints were donated to the Henderson County Public Library by Calloway, Johnson, Moore, and West, the architectural firm that succeeded Six Associates. Fortunately, the library had on its staff an architect turned librarian, William Mitchell, who organized the cataloging and preservation of these unique materials, and who produced a catalog of this collection in 2006.

For Mitchell, Stillwell's work traces the history of general architectural practice in the first half of the twentieth century. Like the vast majority of his contemporaries, Stillwell was not a stylistic innovator. Rather, his work is a reflection of larger architectural trends, adapted to suit the demands of his clients and the projects for which he was hired. He was recognized by his coworkers as taking, in Mitchell's words, "an extraordinary interest and care in the needs of his clients."

First Floor Plan- Center Durham, Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The number of drawings Stillwell produced for each theater project he worked on varied from fewer than ten to more than sixty. With William Mitchell's assistance, we have selected from each set of drawings those that, at a minimum, reflect the interior space of each theater and the design for its facade. In all, we have included 150 drawings representing twenty-three theater projects Stillwell worked on from 1924 to 1950.

We have used information taken from newspaper ads and articles accompanying the opening of Stillwell's North Carolina theaters to supplement the architectural renderings included in "Going to the Show." These accounts provide valuable clues as to what these theaters looked like when they first opened. They also help to establish which theater plans were actually realized: Stillwell designed a number of theaters that were never built, including two projects in Charlotte (the Center and the Park). These articles underscore the role of the movie theater as a civic institution in the 1930s and 1940s. The opening of a new theater was an occasion for public celebration, complete with parades, dedication ceremonies, speeches by local political leaders, and even congratulatory telegrams from Hollywood stars.

Stillwell's Movie Theater Architecture

By 1950, Stillwell-designed movie theaters were to be found in Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, South Carolina, and in twenty cities in North Carolina. The locations of the movie theater projects Stillwell worked on reflect the business policy of Wilby-Kincey, which was to concentrate on small and medium-sized southern cities. In North Carolina, Stillwell worked on movie theater projects in all of the state's largest urban areas: Charlotte, Wilmington, Greensboro, Asheville, Durham, Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Winston-Salem. He also designed theaters for a number of cities in the state of fewer than 20,000 residents: Lenoir, Shelby, Concord, Lexington, Hickory, and Monroe.

Bijou, Wilmington N.C.,Dr. Robert M. Fales Collection, Courtesy New Hanover Public Library

Most architects working in North Carolina in the first half of the twentieth century were generalists, taking on whatever residential, commercial, and institutional projects that came their way. Stillwell had no background in theater architecture when he worked on his first movie theater in Hendersonville in the early 1920s. Similarly, Burett Stephens, the architect who designed Wilmington's first purpose-built movie theater, the Bijou, in 1912, along with several others, had come to Wilmington from Chicago to design and oversee the construction of a fertilizer factory. From 1913 to 1934, Stillwell was involved in only two theater projects, both of them in Hendersonville. It was his fortunate association with the Wilbey-Kincey organization that not only helped to save his career in the depths of the Depression, but also made him one of the most prolific designers of movie theaters in the region. By 1939, the Wilby-Kincey press kit-from which local newspapers drew material whenever one of Stillwell's theaters opened in North Carolina-claimed that Stillwell had "designed more theatres than any other architect in the Carolinas and probably more than any Southern architect."

When Stillwell began his association with Wilby-Kincey in 1934, there were architects and architectural firms that specialized in designing movie theaters, in most cases working with one of the major theater chains. These chains erected thousands of new movie theaters and took over and renovated thousands of older theaters in the 1920s and early 1930s. George and C.W. Rapp designed many theaters for the prominent Chicago-based chain Balaban and Katz. Thomas Lamb worked on some 300 movie theaters, many of them for Marcus Loew and MGM. Marcus Priteca was associated with the Pantages circuit, which covered the Northwest. S. Charles Lee designed some 300 theaters, many of them in and around his base in Southern California. Other prominent and prolific movie theater architects included John Eberson, Albert Lansburgh, and C. Howard Crane.

These nationally high-profile theater architects specialized in designing what by the mid-1910s were called picture palaces: architecturally elaborate, large-capacity theaters located in metropolitan centers and controlled by large theater circuits, usually one associated with a major Hollywood studio and its distribution organization. Picture palaces, seating from 1500 to 5000 moviegoers, were designed to "leave patrons awestruck," as Balaban and Katz instructed Rapp and Rapp in the planning of its Uptown Theater in Chicago in 1925. In other theaters, Rapp and Rapp designed triumphal arches and sweeping staircases inspired by the Paris Opera House. The budgets they were given to work with allowed for $50,000 to be spent on carpet and drapes in one theater alone. (Gomery 1992, pp. 47-49) (Valentine 1994, pp.39-43) (Herzog 1980, p.78)

But such extravagance made economic sense only for the largest and most prominent theaters in the largest cities in the country-theaters from which the chains and their associated studios realized a large share of their national revenues. There were few large cities in the South, however, and thus only a few theaters that received the kind of architectural attention and budget that were common for picture palaces in New York or Chicago. In the 1920s, a few New York picture palaces might take in as much money in a given week as the total of all box office revenues for a Southern city the size of Birmingham, Alabama. In 1920, the population of Birmingham was over 300,000-six times larger than North Carolina's largest city, Charlotte. (Cripps 1970, pp. 116-44) (Jones 2003)

Although local newspapers frequently touted Stillwell's theaters as comparing favorably with those in the country's big cities (in many cases repeating such praise provided for them by the Wilby-Kincey organization), the projects he worked on were much more modest-architecturally and in terms of budget. The largest theater Stillwell designed had only 2190 seats (the Center Theater in Charlotte, 1947), but it was never built. A few of his theaters accommodated more than 1500 moviegoers, but most were in the 800-1200 seat range. He also designed theaters with seating for fewer than 700 patrons.

When Stillwell designed his first movie theater in Hendersonville, N.C., in 1921, movie theaters had been a part of the downtown landscape of cities across the state for fewer than fifteen years. The first movie theaters did not emerge in the state's largest cities (Charlotte and Wilmington) until late 1906. The first purpose-built movie theater in North Carolina (as distinct from theater spaces created from the renovation of storefronts) was not built until 1912, when Wilmington's Bijou Theater was constructed, replacing a tent that had housed the theater for six years. This also marks the first time an architect (Burett Stephens) became involved in the design and planning of a movie theater from the ground up in North Carolina.

The Development of Movie Theater Architecture in North Carolina

Right Side Elevation- Rex Hendersonville, Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

Stylistically, Stillwell's movie theater designs for theaters in North Carolina reflect an early flirtation with the atmospheric style, recreating a historical outdoor fantasy environment along the walls and ceiling of the auditorium. But this style fell out of favor during the period Stillwell was least involved in theater architecture (the 1920s and early 1930s), so we have only two examples of this style in his North Carolina projects: the Rex in Hendersonville and the Center in Rocky Mount.

After 1936, however, Stillwell-like most other movie theater architects-had abandoned historically-based styles (i.e., using architectural motifs from earlier periods) for what might be called a modernist approach. He eliminated historical architectural references in favor of designs that reflected the contemporary machine age. Rather than imitate historical flourishes and materials with terra cotta or plaster, he turned to newer materials that were valued for their own properties: stainless steel, glass, aluminum, ceramic tile, stucco, neon. Two of his projects from 1938 (Center, Durham, Ambassador, Raleigh) show the influence of Art Deco, especially in some of his elaborate geometric proscenium and wall designs.

Front Elevation, Center Monroe, Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

But in 1939, these influences yielded to the Moderne style, with its emphasis on curved surfaces, the elimination of graphic embellishments, and strong horizontal and vertical lines punctuated by "passenger liner" details, including porthole window and door treatments. A good example of Stillwell’s use of Moderne principles is the Center Theater, High Point (1939).

The facades of most of Stillwell's theaters after 1936 might strike the contemporary viewer as simple almost to the point of being unnoticeable: a grouping of vertical elements-pilasters or flat bands created by running grooves down the face of the stucco wall-flanked by horizontal bands. Sometimes color was a feature of the facade detail, but as William Mitchell points out in his catalogue of Stillwell's drawing, his favorite color for movie theater exteriors was white. We should keep in mind, however, that by the late 1930s, the movie theater facade had in many cases become a surface upon which illuminated signage could be hung. Huge marquees jutted out over the box office lobby advertising both the theater and its current attractions. Uprights-vertical signs spelling out the name of the theater and illuminated with incandescent or neon lights-rose twenty or more feet above the marquee, making it visible by pedestrians and motorists for blocks on either side.

The Ambassador Theater at Night 1947, Center Monroe, Images Courtesy of Raleigh City Museum

In the late 1920s the innovation and diffusion of synchronous sound technology (the advent of the talkies) had a significant impact on all movie theaters. The conversion to sound required purchasing new projectors, rewiring the theater, adding speakers, and, for the first time, paying serious attention to acoustic aspects of the experience of cinema. Unfortunately, Stillwell's work in North Carolina does not reflect these changes, except in the way they had already been implemented by theaters in the 1930s: from 1924 to 1934, Stillwell was involved in only one movie theater project in North Carolina-the renovation and rebuilding of the Rex Theater in Hendersonville after a fire in 1932.

Movie Theaters as Raced Spaces

Most histories of movie theater architecture and exhibition do not place race at the center of their accounts of how movie theaters were designed or how the resulting exhibition spaces were experienced by moviegoers. (Notable exceptions here include Jacqueline Stewart (Stewart 2005), Gregory A. Waller (Waller 2005), and Janna Jones (Jones 2005), However, it is clear that race was a central concern for Stillwell in designing all of his theaters-or, more accurately, we should say that race was a central concern of Stillwell's clients. What he designed had to reflect the racial policy the theater owner and management intended to implement.

It has become a commonplace to note that under Jim Crow policies in the South, black movie audiences were often forced to sit in the balcony if they wanted to be admitted to white theaters. But Stillwell's drawings reveal that the segregation of white theaters in the South was not merely a matter of assigning African Americans to one set of seats and in doing so denying them seating in another part of the theater. Rather the racial segregation of Southern theaters was accomplished through the construction of a system of spaces, barriers, duplicate facilities, diversions, entrances, and passageways. This arrangement profoundly affected the experience of moviegoing for millions of white and black southerners from the time purpose-built movie theaters were first planned in the 1910s until the dismantling of Jim Crow in the early 1960s.

Victoria - Ad - segregated balcony, Reaves Collection, Courtesy New Hanover Public Library

The Stillwell drawings provide a very partial but nevertheless valuable glimpse into the nature of that experience, which is obscured in other sources. White theaters usually did not announce their racial policy in newspaper ads. The newspaper coverage of the opening of Stillwell's theaters in North Carolina is often silent as to the segregation of spaces within the theater, even though this is clearly reflected on the plans themselves. Photographs of segregated movie theaters usually do not show the spaces to which black patrons were consigned.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) gave legal sanction to the establishment of segregated public facilities: streetcars, trains, waiting rooms, hospitals, schools, etc. Theaters, however, were not required to provide separate accommodations for African Americans; indeed, they were not legally required to admit African Americans at all. Legally speaking, theaters were not public spaces. Theater managers had the "right" to refuse admission to any one or to any group for any or no reason. The movie ticket-the icon we use in Going to the Show to locate a movie theater on Sanborn maps-was in legal terms a license: temporary permission granted by the theater's management for a person to enter and occupy the space of the theater. It was revocable at any time at the will of the theater's management. By the time movie theaters emerged in the first decade of the 20th century, there was legal precedent for theater managers to regulate the behavior of moviegoers within their theaters and for a patron to be removed from the theater if he or she did not abide by whatever policies the theater management dictated, including policies regulating seating and access to spaces within the theater itself.

As we have documented whenever possible, some theaters in North Carolina explicitly announced that African American were not admitted under any circumstances. The second movie theater to open in Wilmington, the Odeon, in early 1907, advertised itself as the first movie theater in that city "for white people." (The first movie theater there, the Bijou, apparently reserved a separate section for African Americans from the time it opened in December 1906.) When the Manor Theater opened in Wilmington thirty four years later in 1941, it also announced itself as for whites only.

Racially Segregated Venue See Also:

Most white theaters, however, did not publicly announce that they excluded black patrons-at least in a form that has survived. We can tell that some of Stillwell's designs were for what we might call racially exclusionary theaters by the absence of the interrelated set of architectural features that characterized the design of his other, racially segregated movie venues.

We can surmise that any white theater in operation in North Carolina between 1906 and 1962 that did not have a balcony—as was the case with the Stillwell-designed State Theater in Shelby (1939), Winston Theater in Winston-Salem (1949), Dilworth Theater, Charlotte (1939), and Varsity Theater in Raleigh (1941)-- is very unlikely to have admitted African Americans when white patrons were present. The only times black patrons might have been admitted were for what were called "midnight" shows of some films for black audiences only.

However, the presence of a balcony in plans for a theater does not necessarily indicate that it anticipated the admission of African Americans. This appears to have been the case with Stillwell’s plans for the Queen Theater in Hendersonville (1922), the Center Theater, High Point (1939), and the Varsity Theater, Raleigh (1941). The racing of the spaces of moviegoing reflected in the Stillwell drawings goes well beyond merely the provision of balcony seating that might have been used for African Americans. Stillwell's clients who planned to admit African Americans would also have had him design corresponding features that assured that, in so far as possible, black patrons would be physically and visually removed from the experience of moviegoing of white patrons from the moment both groups entered the theater until the moment they left: these features would have included a separate entrance (and frequently a separate box office), stairs that bypassed the auditorium as well as all other spaces through which white patrons might pass (lobbies, lounges, toilets, and, after World War II, concession stands).

This insistence upon the separation of all facilities by race even required Stillwell to equip a box office for the Broadway Theater in Fayetteville with two windows and a swiveling stool for the attendant so that white patrons did not have to line up with African Americans. Thus, if theatres did not include these isolating features, it can be assumed that the theater was not intended to admit African Americans, and, furthermore, that, according to the logic of Jim Crow, changing this policy (prior to the desegregation of theaters in the early 1960s) would have required renovating the theater to add them-not merely "opening" the balcony to black patrons.

These generalizations are based upon an admittedly small and unrepresentative sample of theaters, but pending further research, we can say that the exclusionary racial policy of many white theaters in the South was "built in" and would have been difficult and expensive to change. To be sure, some white theaters, especially from 1912 to 1930, were renovated to add "colored" balconies. This was the case with Stillwell's renovation of the Rex Theater (rechristened the Carolina) in Hendersonville in 1932. But it is likely that this "accommodation" of African Americans was, as with the case with the Rex, a part of a more general expansion and upgrading project.

Most of the theaters Stillwell designed were clearly intended to accommodate African American patrons rather than to exclude them altogether. Stillwell's notes and correspondence do not survive, so we do not have a record of the negotiations that occurred between him and his clients (in all but a very few cases the Wilby-Kincey organization) regarding the manner in which each theater would enforce separation of the races. No doubt there were physical and economic considerations involved. Neither do we have a record of the way racial policy was determined within the Wilby-Kincey organization or with regard to any individual theater in its North Carolina Theatres, Inc., subsidiary. Why would Wilby-Kincey or its local partner-and, by extension, other Southern theaters and circuits--devote budget and space to accommodate African Americans at all in the absence of a legal requirement that they do so? Answering this important question awaits more detailed analysis of the moviegoing landscape across towns and cities in the South throughout the Jim Crow period as well as discovery of more documentation of theater architecture and exhibition policies. Economics must certainly have played a role: how valuable was the African American audience to the balance sheet of a given "white" theater? This calculation was in part a function of demographics: what was the size of the African American population in a given city and the surrounding rural market in relation to the total potential audience for a theater? In the case of the Stillwell theaters in North Carolina, at least, there is no consistent correlation between the proportion of the population represented by African Americans and racial policy reflected in the theater's design. The Carolina in Lexington made provision for African Americans, even though they constituted less than ten percent of the local population. On the other hand, Stillwell's design for the Dilworth Theater in Charlotte, where nearly a third of the population was African American, shows no evidence of accommodation for black patrons.

In some cases, the balcony Stillwell designed was intended to be used only by African Americans. This was the case at the Colony Theater in Fayetteville (1941). In other cases Stillwell designed a balcony that was itself racially segregated: a lower section for white patrons and, behind them and thus out of their line of sight, an upper balcony for African Americans. Such racially divided balconies always were served by separate stairways: one for whites leading from the first-floor lobby or mezzanine lounge, and another for African Americans, leading from a separate entrance to the theater and bypassing "white" areas of the theater.

Detail of Balcony Floor Plan- Center Lenoir, Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

Stillwell devised several different strategies for maintaining a physical separation between the two balcony sections. In the Center Theater, Rocky Mount, he called for a fixed railing between upper and lower seating areas. In the Center Theater, Lenoir, he designed a movable railing that presumably could be adjusted according to the racial makeup of the audience for a given show, or removed altogether if the manager decided to use the balcony for only one race. But in all such cases, black audiences were assigned the worst seats in the house: furthest from the screen, looking down from a steep angle.

There were also differences in the way the racing of the space of moviegoing was represented in newspaper stories and ads accompanying the open of the theater. In some cases, the segregation of spaces within the theater was not even acknowledged. In a few instances, as with the Center Theater, Durham, the provision of facilities for African Americans was trumpeted in newspaper accounts

Movie theaters in North Carolina would not be desegregated until the early 1960s.

The Fate of Stillwell's North Carolina Theaters

Erle Stillwell's career as a movie theater architect was drawing to a close at the same time that film exhibition in general was undergoing transformative change. Movie attendance began to decline shortly after the end of World War II. A number of factors were responsible. Douglas Gomery argues that a key factor was suburbanization, which took families further and further away from downtowns, making "going to the show" at downtown theaters a more expensive and time-consuming enterprise. The building of shopping centers outside of the central business district in towns and cities across the country in the 1950s and 1960s drew shoppers away from the shops and department stores that had been downtown fixtures for generations. Movie theater owners, including Wilby-Kincey, built new movie theaters in suburban strip malls. The popularity of television, particularly from the mid-1950s forward, contributed to the decline as well. (Gomery 1992, pp.83-87)

Downtown movie theaters-including those designed by Erle Stillwell--fell on hard times. Some switched from showing first-run Hollywood films to exploitation and/or "adult" fare-as was the case with the Center Theater, Hickory, North Carolina. Others ceased functioning as movie venues, and, like the storefronts that early movie theaters had "repurposed" half a century before, were themselves recycled as homes for different businesses. Stillwell's first theater, the Queen in Hendersonville, was in 2009 a jewelry store, barely recognizable as the theater Stillwell designed in 1921.

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The Center Theater in High Point was adapted as a furniture showroom. Some of its Moderne interior features have been preserved, including its sweeping aluminum stairway. The Center in Greensboro was a coffee and tea store in the 1980s. Twenty-five years later, it was made into a nightclub-its 1949 marquee still in use.

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Stillwell theaters in Monroe and Lenoir still stand, but they have been shuttered. Plans have been made to renovate the State Theater in Shelby as a theatrical venue. The renovated Carolina in Lexington is the city's civic center. But most of Stillwell's North Carolina theaters have been demolished, replaced by office buildings or parking lots (i.e. Bailey Theater, Wilmington).

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