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Going to the Show

Queen Theater, Hendersonville, N.C. 1922

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The Queen Theater project, undertaken in his hometown of Hendersonville, North Carolina, represents Erle Stillwell's first work in theater architecture of any kind. In the early 1920s, Hendersonville was a city of fewer than five thousand residents, some twenty percent of whom were African American. It is located in the mountains of North Carolina, approximately twenty miles from Asheville. By the time Stillwell was hired to plan the renovation and expansion of the Queen in 1921, it had been in operation for six years at 424 North Main Street in downtown Hendersonville.

Like nearly every other white movie theater in North Carolina in 1921, the Queen was located downtown and in re-purposed retail space. In this case, the Queen had taken over space in the Hyder Building that had previously been used as a grocery store and livery and transfer company. The one-story stone building was built between 1901 and 1908 and measured twenty-eight feet by seventy feet. The 1912 Sanborn map indicates the height of the building as twelve feet. A narrow alley separated the building from the Hendersonville Town Hall and Opera House.

Unfortunately, no photographs survive of the Queen before Stillwell's renovations in 1921. A brief article in the local newspaper, the French Broad Hustler, announcing its opening in July 1915, notes that the interior of the building had been renovated "for moving picture purposes." Chief among those renovations was the creation of an inclined floor, which greatly improved audience sight lines. Accomplishing this at the Queen was facilitated, no doubt, by the fact that the lot on which the building stood sloped sharply away from the street.

Stillwell's 1921 plans for the Queen focus on several key elements of movie exhibition and moviegoing that were difficult to address through cosmetic alterations to leased storefront spaces: increased seating capacity, accommodation of live entertainment, construction of a separate balcony, and a complete reconstruction of the facade.

Front Elevation- Queen Hendersonville , Courtesy of Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

The two major structural changes to the building involved adding a second story to allow for a balcony and raised projection room. To accomplish this, Stillwell removed the gabled roof and more than doubled the building's height. He also extended the building some thirty feet to the rear.

As was common in movie theater architecture, Stillwell paid particular attention to the renovation of the front of the building. He re-faced the rough stone facade with brick. He chose a neo-classical style for the Queen, which was frequently used by architects in this period for banks and civic buildings, but was popular with the first generation of movie theater architects, as well.

One of the earliest exterior architectural features to be added to the front of buildings used as movie theaters was the recessed box office lobby, shown on the Stillwell drawings as a "vestibule." This provided some shelter for ticket- buyers in inclement weather and differentiated the theater entrance from other buildings along the street. Some theater box offices were separate structures (a round shape seems to have been favored) placed close to the sidewalk-- carrying over an architectural tradition from carnivals and circuses. For the Queen, however, Stillwell built the box office into the front wall of the theater itself. (Herzog 1980, pp.35-36)

The vestibule was flanked by double pilasters topped by Corinthian capitals and standing on large granite bases. Stillwell used terracotta for the large sign panel above the vestibule with "The Queen" spelled in raised letters as well as for the cornice above the pilasters. Herzog points out that terra cotta was a material much favored by architects for the facades of movie theaters. It was relatively inexpensive, durable, and could be made to imitate other materials. It could also be used to add color to a building. (Herzog 1980, pp.55-56)

"Sweet's" Indexed Catalogue of
Building Construction for the Year 1906

It is very likely that Stillwell made use of factory-produced ornamental elements for the facade of the Queen. By 1921 architects could select all manner of ornamental iron and terracotta elements from catalogues, knowing that they could be delivered to local builders and assembled on site to produce whatever stylistic patterns were desired. The neo-classical flourishes were continued in the auditorium in the ornamental proscenium surrounding the screen.

Stillwell's extension of the building to the rear not only allowed for five more rows of seats, but also accommodated the Queen's "Fotoplayer" organ, which had been added in 1919. (Hendersonville News, October 10, 1923). Stillwell's plans also called for a new boiler room on the basement level of the addition.

The second floor contained a manager's office, a poster room (for storing advertising materials), the projection booth (lined with asbestos for fire safety), a single toilet, and a shallow eight-row balcony. In movie theaters that were repurposed from first-floor storeroom spaces in commercial buildings (as most early movie theaters across the country were), the projection booth had to be placed at the rear of the auditorium itself, elevated on a wooden platform or on stilts. Having a second floor allowed the projection room to be removed from the auditorium itself and made larger. One amenity that Stillwell did not include here or in his next theater design (the 1924 Rex in Hendersonville) was a projection booth toilet, which would become a standard feature of later theater plans.

Adding a balcony increased seating capacity without incurring the need to expand the footprint of the auditorium itself. It also created a separate seating area largely out of sight of the patrons in first-floor seats below. In some cases, the addition of a balcony signaled the proprietor's "accommodation" of African-American audiences, but this does not seem to have been the case with Stillwell's plans for the Queen: it was merely additional seating for white patrons. Had Stillwell designed the balcony to be used by African Americans, he almost certainly would have included a separate set of stairs and separate entrance for this purpose, as he did for other segregated theaters.

Stillwell's plans are also interesting for what they do not include. Space that might have been used for an interior lobby is taken up by the recessed exterior portico and box office. Only a half-wall separated the shallow vestibule from the last row of seats, so entering patrons would have been plunged immediately into darkness when they stepped through either of the two sets of double doors that flanked the box office. The "restroom" facilities Stillwell designed for the Queen consisted merely of a single toilet at the top of the balcony level.

The "new" Queen opened on Monday, July 3, 1922. The Hendersonville News noted that scaffolding had been removed from the front of the building only a few days before, revealing "an elegant, modern theatre." The interior walls were painted a "French gray" with maroon trim. The ceiling was turquoise. The interior of the theater was now 130 feet long and 25 feet wide. Thirty-five twelve-seat rows could accommodate 420 patrons on the first floor, with an additional 96 in the balcony.

The Queen was renamed the State in the 1930s and became the Fox in the 1950s. As of 2009, the building still stands, its first floor now occupied by a jewelry store. The lower half of the facade has been covered, but Stillwell's design can still be seen in the upper half. According to William Mitchell, parts of the balcony, projection room, and stage remain. (Mitchell 2006, pp. 142-143)