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Preserving Historic Theaters

This guide provides information on the history of historic theaters, gives examples of rehabilitation projects across the country, and suggests related resources for interested individuals to track down for more information.


The first documented playhouse in America was built in 1716 in Williamsburg, Virginia, and by the 1770s, most major American cultural centers - Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston - had playhouses. None of them survives. Population growth, westward expansion, and rising incomes due to industrial and commercial growth led to a significant increase in theater construction during the 19th century. Theaters were built at the centers of towns and used for a wide variety of performances from travelling vaudeville shows to opera.


The introduction of film in the late 1890s first sparked the creation of "Nickelodeons" - flat floored structures with little ornamentation that projected early short silent films quite cheaply. Sometimes called "storefront theaters," Nickelodeons often mixed films with other forms of entertainment, and used bedsheets as projection screens with a loud piano accompaniment to drown out the noise of the projector.

Movie Palaces

With the arrival of sound film in 1915, and spurred by the economic expansion of the 1920s, a "movie palace" building boom commenced. These ornate and large buildings were constructed in a wide variety of exotic and opulent styles - Moorish, Egyptian, Mayan, and Oriental. Following the Depression, theaters were constructed at a slower pace and in simpler styles, but the popularity of film as entertainment continued. Movie-going was, through the second World War, the most common form of popular entertainment. People would often attend movies two or three times a week.

In 1946, the peak of the movie industry's attendance figures, 90 million people a week attended the movies. This would change, however, with the rapid rise of television and shifting demographics as families moved to the suburbs. A 1948 Supreme Court decision settled an Anti-Trust case brought against movie studios and ordered them to divest their holdings of theaters, effectively ending the era of the movie palace.

1950s to Today

Over the subsequent decades many theaters were lost - either through neglect or demolition. However, beginning in the late 1960s, interest in restoring and preserving historic theaters began to grow. In 1970 Gene Chesley, scenic designer, theatre historian, and teacher, created the National List of Historic Theatre Buildings. This list attempted to document historic theaters still standing.

These efforts led to the formation of The League of Historic American Theatres (LHAT) in 1976, an organization dedicated to the preservation, restoration, and use of historic American theatres. Today, historic theaters continue to be restored, often as performing arts centers, serving to revitalize communities and neighborhoods across the country.