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Center Theater, High Point, N.C. 1939

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The Center Theater (High Point) was built for North Carolina Theatres, Inc., the company used by the Wilby-Kincey theater chain for its North Carolina operations. It was located at 152 S. Main Street in High Point, an important wholesale furniture center in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. In 1939, there were approximately 39,000 residents, some 20 percent of whom were African American.

According to one of the many articles in the High Point Enterprise written about the opening of the Center on January 30, 1939, one of the most important factors to North Carolina Theatres, Inc., in locating the new theater was a central, downtown location. The 100 block of S. Main Street was "a point which represents almost the center of High Point." ("New Center Theatre in Center of City," High Point Enterprise, January 29, 1939, p. B- 4).

As was the case with the Ambassador Theater in Raleigh, which Stillwell had designed in 1937-38, locating the Center in an already built-up block of downtown meant fitting it into an existing commercial building. The Center took advantage of space that had previously been used for a small movie theater, the Orpheum, within a five-story commercial building originally designed to accommodate four first-floor storefronts.

Stillwell used the long, narrow storefront space (less than twenty feet wide) as a series of lobbies that extended from the exterior box office lobby to two interior lobbies. The 1300-seat auditorium and stage areas were placed to the rear and took up the entire width of the building. This situation was not unusual. Many large downtown movie theaters had narrow frontages on a main commercial thoroughfare: property in any downtown was valued by the frontage foot. Movie theaters could take advantage of the much cheaper land that lay to the rear of downtown commercial buildings--what developers and architects called "backland"- by placing the theater's auditorium, stage, and support facilities there. (Herzog 1980, p. 83.)

Above the auditorium, Stillwell added a mezzanine lobby and toilet facilities, and above that a balcony. The Center was designed for movies and live entertainment, with a full stage and dressing rooms.

Terrazzo Floor Design- Center High Point, Courtesy of Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

In his book Buildings as History: The Architecture of Erle Stillwell (Mitchell 2006, p. 130.) William Mitchell calls the Center "a great example of Stillwell's Moderne style." Moderne touches included a sweeping staircase with aluminum handrails and curved walls on the mezzanine level. Stillwell designed an Art Deco terrazzo floor pattern for the box office lobby.

"Modern" was certainly the key term used to describe the Center in ads and articles appearing at the time of the theater's opening. On New Year's Day 1939, the High Point Enterprise announced that after seven months of construction, the "completely modern" Center was scheduled to open within a few weeks. "Theatrical experts," it reported, anticipated that it would be "easily North Carolina's most modern "movie house." The Center was High Point's first air-conditioned theater. ("New Theater Will Open in February," High Point Enterprise, January 1, 1939).

Comparison of the design of the Center in High Point with that of the Center in Durham reveals the variability in racial policy among southern theaters in the 1930s- even those designed by the same architect for the same client and located in cities of similar size and racial composition within the same region of the same state (High Point is only seventy-five miles from Durham).

At the Center Theater in Durham, which he designed in 1937, Stillwell had designed the interior space to allow for the admission of African Americans, but kept them physically and visually segregated through the provision of a separate seating section in the balcony, separate stairs (which did not allow access to white seating, lobby, or toilets), and a separate entrance and box office. This pattern had also been followed in the design of the Center Theater in Rocky Mount (designed in 1936-37) and the Ambassador Theater in Raleigh (1937-38). The "accommodation" of African Americans at the Center in Durham was highlighted in newspaper articles appearing at the time of the theater's opening.

In the plans for the Center in High Point, however, there are no provisions for African Americans indicated, and no mention is made of the theater's racial policy in newspaper ads or articles at the time of the theater's opening. Thus it is very likely that the Center in High Point was designed with the assumption that African Americans would not be admitted to the theater at all- at least not when whites were also present.

African Americans could glimpse the inside of High Point's new "house of happiness" only through the local newspaper's detailed descriptions and photographs published the week of the Center's opening. One article noted that nearly forty percent of the floor space of the new theater was devoted to lobbies and lounges: "The beauty, the luxury, the architecture and color scheme of the new Center overflow through the spacious lobbies clear to the sidewalk curb. . . The instant one steps under the light-studded marquee he is in the theater, for the spacious glass cases to each side with their unique displays, are virtually a show in themselves." ("Nearly Forty Percent of Floor Space in Theatre Given to Lobbies, Lounges," High Point Enterprise, January 29, 1939, p. B-4).

The omission of High Point African Americans from accounts of the Center's opening contrasts sharply with the inclusionary, democratic characterization of the theater's (white) audience.

A good theater is a magnetic force. To it are drawn the tired worker, hard working farmer, the zealous teacher, the expectant juvenile. It is the assemblying point of men and women, boys and girls. Countless numbers of persons in need of relaxations and temporary freedom from the cares of life lose themselves in its glamour.
("New Center Theatre in Center of City," High Point Enterprise, January 29, 1939, p. B-4).

An article published on the eve of the Center's opening discusses "the ever broadening importance of the moving picture theater as a tremendous force in the lives of individuals who make up the community about it." The movie theater is one of society's most "human" institutions: "It spares no effort to create a friendly courteous atmosphere. It is for the rich man and poor man. It welcomes all with its promise of clean, wholesome relaxation." ("Motion Picture Theatre Has Important Role in Community," High Point Enterprise, January 29, 1939, p. 5-B).

As was the case with the other theaters Stillwell designed for North Carolina Theatres, Inc., theaters in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the opening of the Center was treated almost as if the theater were a gift to the High Point community- a civic as well as a commercial addition to downtown. The dedication ceremony was announced as "a mammoth family event in which the rich and poor, the general masses will take part in the spirit of neighborliness . . . It will be a house-warming, with every man, woman and child invited to see and enjoy all parts of the theater." The editor of the High Point Enterprise served as master of ceremonies for the "simple but fitting" dedication exercise. He introduced the mayor of High Point, Dr. C.S. Grayson, who received from its new manager "the use of the theater for the people of this section of North Carolina." ("Simple But Fitting Exercises Will Mark Opening of Theatre," High Point Enterprise, January 29, 1939, p. B-4) The role of the downtown movie theater as a community gathering space and of moviegoing as a community-wide activity- here as elsewhere in the South- makes the routine and unremarked-upon application of Jim Crow racial policies all the more stinging.

As William Mitchell notes, the space Stillwell designed as the Center survives, though not as a movie theater. One of High Point's many furniture companies now occupies the building, but elements of Stillwell's moderne design have been preserved.