A new exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., chronicles the stunning and somewhat sad history of cinema houses in America’s Charm City. Flickering Treasures: Rediscovering Baltimore’s Forgotten Movie Theaters opens tomorrow, November 17, showcasing the work of award-winning Baltimore Sun photographer Amy Davis. The show is based on Davis’s year-old book of the same name, which features 72 Baltimore buildings photographed from 1896 to today. Collected over a decade, her colorful documentary photography pits the current state of these once-opulent downtown theaters and modest neighborhood cinema houses with vintage black-and-white photos of the structures in their heyday. Curator Deborah Sorensen worked with Davis to collect over 100 architectural fragments and pieces of theater ephemera to populate the exhibition, each adding a layer of tangibility to the buildings detailed in the book. Along with these elements, personal stories unveiled through text illuminate both the local story of Baltimore’s own 20th-century urbanization, segregation, and suburban sprawl, as well as the national trends in theater design and the ever-evolving movie-going experience. “Baltimore was already a mid-size city at the turn-of-the-century,” said Sorensen. “As a case study, it mirrors the development of the film industry and how it shaped cities across America. Movie palaces were being built to reflect local civic pride and the power of movies. If you look at when cities really started booming, it’s when these structures were coming online.” Davis’s photographs not only unveil the architectural history of movie theaters, but track these shifts in local population, land use, and urban history in Baltimore. In the early 1900s, famous architects were called upon to design grand cinema houses for downtown commercial districts. Many sported shiny, stand-out marquees and seated up to 2,000 people. Post-World War II, the city had 119 theaters of varying sizes and designs, but due to the introduction of television and mega-malls, the way people consumed films dramatically changed, as well as the way theaters were constructed. Davis conducted 300 interviews with movie exhibitors, theater employees, property owners, and filmgoers to get at the heart of these theaters and their surrounding locales. She photographed the buildings as they stand today—some revitalized as performing arts centers, churches, or concert venues, others still derelict and falling apart, and some completely demolished. Their successful, or in some cases poor, evolutions point to local investment in preservation and development over time. “We’re looking at the rise of movie-going and the decline of downtowns through the lens of this particular place,” said Sorenson. “It’s a reality that many American cities have faced and are trying to recover from." Since the first movie theater opened its doors in the late 19th century, Baltimore has been home to a total of 240 cinemas. Today, it has only five functioning theaters, not including the homogenous AMC or Regal theaters common today. Two outstanding examples include the legendary Hippodrome, built in 1914, and Parkway, built in 1915. Both came back to life after multi-million dollar restoration and expansion projects. Not all movie theaters across the country have been so lucky. Flickering Treasures gives visitors an in-depth look at Baltimore’s former movie palaces and neighborhood film houses, as well as notable architects and industry entrepreneurs through poignant case studies and enlightening biographies. With photographs of rarely-seen interiors and much-need information on the history of these unique facades, Davis shines a spotlight on over a century of change in one American city. Flickering Treasures is open through October 14, 2019. For a sneak peek of the show, visit Davis's Flickering Treasures on Facebook.
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In November, the Los Angeles City Council named Armet & Davis' Johnie’s Coffee Shop, the restaurant at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, a historic cultural landmark. That’s a win for preservationists concerned with the legacy of the Googie style, the auto-oriented, steel-and-neon aesthetic that spawned diners and coffee shops across Southern California from the 1940s through the 1960s. It might also give a leg up to locals interested in seeing Johnie’s returned to its original use. Because Johnie’s Coffee Shop isn’t a coffee shop, and hasn’t been for over a decade. Since 2000, it’s been closed to the public and used exclusively for filming. The restaurant’s film credits, both before and after its conversion to a 24/7 theatrical set, include The Big Lebowski and Reservoir Dogs. But while the best use for a building like Johnie's might have a stronger community orientation, in the meantime its co-optation by the film industry isn't all bad. When it takes over a building, the film industry buys time for preservationists and others hoping to breathe new life into an under-used landmark, Adrian Scott Fine, Director of Advocacy at the Los Angeles Conservancy explained. "It's kind of an advantage that Los Angeles has over other cities," he said. In addition, "People discover buildings through film," Scott said. "Johnie's, some of the films it's been in, it's clearly the star of the film." Approximately two years ago, the Los Angeles Conservancy honored Mad Men and its creator, Matthew Weiner, for the way in which it showcases midcentury modern architecture. Weiner has been active in efforts to preserve Los Angeles landmarks, Fine said, and the show has featured preservation-themed plot lines, including the demolition of New York's Penn Station. This all got us thinking: what other LA architectural landmarks are now used primarily as stage sets? The answer, it turns out, is quite a few. From one of Julia Morgan’s earliest Hearst commissions to a 1958 Pereira & Luckman high-rise, here’s our list of Los Angeles masterworks currently in the hands of the film industry. Herald Examiner Building (Downtown, Broadway and 11th Street) Media magnate William Randolph Hearst commissioned 2014 AIA Gold Medal recipient Julia Morgan to design a new headquarters building for the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper in 1913, ten years after the paper’s founding. When the Herald Examiner, the Los Angeles Examiner’s successor, went under in 1989, the Hearst Corporation held on to the structure. In 2008, Brenda Levin (who cites Julia Morgan as her role model) was set to renovate the building—but then the economy tanked. Plans to rehabilitate the building, and build two Morphosis-designed residential towers adjacent to it, were put on indefinite hold. Today, the Herald Examiner building is used exclusively for filming. Scenes in The Usual Suspects, Dreamgirls, Spider-Man 3, Zoolander, Castle, Bones, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, plus music videos by Eminem, Shakira, and Christina Aguilera were shot there. Interior location sets include an apartment, bar, jail, and police station. Park Plaza Hotel (Westlake, 607 South Park View Street) Art Deco and Corporate Moderne architect Claud Beelman designed the Park Plaza Hotel as Elks Lodge No. 99 in 1925. During the 1932 Olympics, the building hosted several indoor swimming events. The Park Plaza, which is listed as a Los Angeles historic-cultural landmark, features four ballrooms: the Grand Ballroom, whose decorated ceiling beams were modeled after a palace in Florence; the Art Deco Terrace Room, formerly the Elks Lodge meeting room; the Bronze Ballroom, distinguished by its copper-gilded columns; and the smaller Gold Room, named for the gold-leaf detail on its Corinthian columns. Both indoor and outdoor spaces, including the Tuscan Patio, can be rented for filming, weddings, and other events. Greystone Mansion (Beverly Hills, 501 Doheny Road) The lavish Beverly Hills estate known as Greystone Mansion was designed by Gordon B. Kaufmann beginning in 1925 for Edward Laurence Doheny, Jr., son of Los Angeles’s original oil magnate. Kaufmann, who would go on to design both the Hoover Dam and the Los Angeles Times building, designed the fifty-five room mansion in the Tudor style. The estate gained notoriety soon after construction finished, when Doheny, Jr. was found dead of an apparent murder-suicide. The City of Beverly Hills purchased the property in 1955, and built a reservoir on the site. The grounds of the mansion are open to the public, while the interior is available for filming and events. Greystone Mansion is featured in movies including The Muppets, The Social Network, What Women Want, Air Force One, and Ghostbusters. Los Angeles Theatre (Downtown, Broadway and 6th Street) In the ultimate Hollywood irony, the Los Angeles Theatre now just plays one on TV. The film palace was designed in 1931 by S. Charles Lee, after the Fox Theatre in San Francisco. A popular theater designer, Lee’s other Los Angeles buildings include the Alex Theatre, the Saban Theatre (formerly the Fox Wilshire), the Star Theatre, and the Tower Theatre. The Los Angeles Theatre, which the Los Angeles Conservancy calls “[t]he most lavish . . . of Broadway’s great movie palaces,” features a six-story lobby with a Louis XIV-inspired sunburst motif, plus a glass-ceiling ballroom and a nursery decorated with a circus theme. The building is available for rent as a film location, and for special events, live stage performances, and film screenings. "[The film industry] has certainly been instrumental in keeping the theaters going, where historic theaters are certainly one of the most difficult [building types] to adapt," Fine said. "I'm not sure, if you look at other cities with historic theaters, if we hadn't had the filming industry doing things, we probably would have lost them." Los Angeles Center Studios (City West, 1501 W. Fifth Street) When the Los Angeles Center Studios’ original tower, designed by Pereira & Luckman, was completed in 1958, it was the tallest structure in downtown LA. Hexagonal in shape, the International Style building is entirely unornamented, except for the aluminum sunshades at the base of each window. By 1998 the building, which was originally designed as part of Union Oil’s headquarters, was threatened with demolition. A group of developers bought the complex and converted it into a full-service TV, film, and commercial production studio. The Pereira & Luckman tower is now dedicated to entertainment and creative office space.