Courtesy BTHL

This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.

The grand opera houses of 19th century Europe led to equally extravagant American movie palaces of the early- and mid-1900s. These structures were often ornately decorated and constantly evolving with technological innovations in lighting, movie projection, and seating design. This month we explore some architectural documents that reveal the progression of theater design in the 20th century.

Chicago Projecting Co.’s Entertainer’s Supplies, Chicago Projecting Co., Chicago, c. 1900
The earliest theater catalog in the BTHL features “entertainer’s supplies,” including motion picture machines, lenses, film, reels, and “magic lantern slide projectors.” While not directly related to the architecture of the theaters, the quality of the technology likely attracted theater audiences as well as aspiring theater owners in search of success. This catalog remarks, “This booklet is published in the interest…for the man who is ambitious and anxious to get on in the world, who desires to be independent, to throw of the day laborer’s shackles…and earn a title of being a self-made man.” Readers can also choose from a selection of top movies of the day.

Exterior and Interior Ornamentation in Plaster, Composition, and Cement for the Motion Picture Theater, Decorators Supply Co., Chicago, 1913
This catalog highlights the use of ornamental plaster for interior and exterior uses in the construction of motion picture theaters. Natural, religious, and detailed plaster-cast plastic motifs were popular at the time, as evidenced by this collection of ornately decorated theaters. Decorators Supply Co. demonstrated the impact of its work with before-and-after photos, interior shots, and design plans.

American Theatre Equipment Co., Columbus, Ohio, c. 1920s
This catalog aims to fulfill theater owners' every possible need for motion-picture projectors and cameras, reels, film shipping cases, film cement and lubricants, doorstops, electric ticket registers, fire extinguishers, exit signs, seating, and even automated curtain controls and tracks.

Theatre Cooling by Carrier Centrifugal Refrigeration and Air Distribution, Carrier Engineering Corp., New York, 1925
“Summer heat has always been the theatre’s chief competitor,” according to this catalog. The technical document also includes personal testimonials and newspaper stories about the advantages of an air conditioned space.

Illumination Control for the Modern Theater, Cutler-Hammer Mfg. Co., Milwaukee, 1926
This illustrated technical catalog advertises lighting control boards for theaters as well as schools, lodge halls, and office buildings. Photos of theater interiors and large exterior signs add an architectural flourish to a catalog that otherwise mostly features control boards.

Catalog of the Theater: Scenery, Lighting, Hardware, Painting, Costume, Make Up, Cleon Throckmorton, New York, 1932
This catalog features specialty supplies for the set designers advertising interchangeable unit scenery pieces that can be ornamented with features such as faux doors, fireplaces, windows. Elements representing natural features such as trees and rocks were also available.

The Voice of the Theater, Altec Lansing Corp., 1945
The Altec Lansing Corp. was a leader in speaker technology for both professional movie houses and in-home use. This sound system is largely hidden from view, but purports to have a great impact the movie experience.