Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 13
by Hilary Russell
Building a Movie Palace: The Capitol
A movie palace was an extremely complex structure to design and build. To be successful it usually required the collaboration of an architect, a structural engineer, and electrical engineer, a heating and ventilating expert, an acoustics consultant and an interior decorator.1 It was these experts' job to produce a building that was comfortable and well ventilated, had exemplary sight lines and acoustics, with enough circulation space and exits for thousands of patrons, and the appearance of being unstintingly luxurious. Yet, in most cases, a movie palace had to be built and opened in the shortest possible time so that its owners could begin to recoup their investment.
Some of the grandest movie palaces took between one and two years to build, equip and decorate. Usually, their opening dates were predicted months ahead of their actual openings.
At Loew's (Ottawa) opening, representatives from Government House and City Council encountered a lobby hung with Canadian flags, bought at the last minute to disguise unfinished plasterwork.3
The Ottawa Citizen announced on 24 July 1919 that Bate McMahon Company would begin to construct the following week a Loew's theatre on the corner of Bank and Queen streets.4 Its cost was estimated at $500,000 and the theatre's opening was predicted for the following January.
To make way for a building that extended 99 feet along Bank Street and 264 feet along Queen, a number of one-storey brick and brick veneer offices and commercial establishments (all except one fronting on Bank Street), a livery stable and a few iron sheds were demolished. A considerable portion of the lot was empty on Queen Street. In their place rose a four-storey movie palace of brick over a steel frame or "composite construction" (Figs. 66-67).
Steel frame construction, though relatively expensive and new, had many advantages. It allowed a greater speed of erection than reinforced concrete in situ construction or the building of load-carrying brick walls of statutory thickness. It produced an initially drier building which could be plastered and painted sooner than a reinforced concrete structure. "In auditorium construction the cavities resulting after stanchion casing between the outer wall and the inner flush skin [could] be used for upcast ducts in connection with the ventilating system."5 As well, "in being able to span reasonable distances, steel frame construction offered an easy solution to the problem of creating stage areas and proscenium openings." Finally, it produced more floor space than buildings with thick load-carrying brick walls.6
The outer and inner brick walls of the theatre were constructed simultaneously. The space developed between them, the cavity wall, accommodated the ties which joined the two structures and provided insulation. Air space and cinders between the poured concrete floor (at ground level) and the interior hardwood flooring afforded additional insulation.
The movie palace architect and engineer were faced with the problem of constructing balconies that seated more than a thousand, projected 50 to 100 feet, rose at an angle of 20 to 30 degrees, spanned wide spaces, had a depth of two or even three storeys, yet were free from severe vibration when the theatre was being filled and emptied.7 Great cantilevered balconies were the solution; in addition, they obviated the need for view-obstructing columns in the auditorium. "Immense loads could be transferred to the wall stanchions using a minimum of material" through a criss-cross-cantilevered system of steel structural members and girders.8
A greatly simplified explanation follows of the construction method employed for the 1,077-seat balcony of the Capitol and the rest of the movie palaces:
It was not the case, as one observer complained, that the movie palace dome, "a feature that needs a maximum of support," was "gaily dragged in and suspended from heaven by goodness knows what means."10 The flat roof of the theatre, comprising fabricated steel trusses supporting steel I-beams, joists and boards, and a coat of tar and gravel, supported the metal lath and plaster-suspended domes of the Capitol's grand foyer and auditorium. Angle irons were knitted into the metal lath network, which was shaped into a dome and suspended from the steel decking of the roof by a myriad of steel hangers or trusses.
The metal lath network provided an ideal key for a minimum quantity of fibrous plaster which was applied from the under side of the dome. The plaster was smoothed and shaped on application with hand-held wooden or metal "running moulds," whose templates were cut to resemble a reversed cross section of the form they reproduced. The plaster dome might be "run" as many as ten times, and between each application, the plaster was allowed to set. Finally, 1/32 inch of plaster of paris, or the "white coat" was skimmed over the fibrous plaster.
The basic form of the dome was defined in this way. Cast plaster enrichments were applied later, or, if they were heavy, were attached directly to the metal lath with fibres and plaster (Figs. 68-69).11
This dome construction was common in movie palaces and was structurally sound. The dome would not be jeopardized by the breaking of one or several of the steel hangers. But the dome could be damaged by the impact of a body falling off the catwalk that usually encircled the dome under the roof. It is possible that such a body might fall right through the dome, but its metal lath probably did not very easily rupture, and no instance was discovered of someone taking that route into the auditorium or grand foyer (Figs. 70-72).
After the roof and the shell of the building were fairly well completed, it was the job of the ornamental plasterers, painters, decorators and other subcontractors to make the structure into a movie palace under the architect's guidance (Figs. 73-74).
Miss Ann Dornin of Thomas Lamb's office in New York supervised the work of G. T. Green Ltd., the local firm responsible for exterior and interior painting, the ornamental plastering firm of Peter B. Baxter of Montreal, and William Eckhardt of New York, who was responsible for the decorative paintings and murals. Mm. J. A. Ewart was the local supervising architect.
It does not appear that "interior decorations were sent up boxed from the United States, each piece numbered, to be erected according to instructions."12 The duty and shipping costs involved in such a system would have been prohibitive. As well, it was Lamb's custom to employ local craftsmen and materials when available.13 He maintained an office in Toronto where the plans for his Canadian theatres were drawn up.
The blueprints for Loew's Ottawa theatre, which included specifications for the plaster decoration required, were submitted to Baxter's plastering firm. Novel designs were modelled in clay to specifications and plaster casts produced. The firm no doubt maintained plaster moulds of most of the fairly commonplace mouldings and motifs employed.14 From these flexible gelatine moulds were made15 from which numerous castings would be duplicated. Gelatine moulds were best suited to work requiring much repetition without excessive cost. They also reproduced undercut relief modelling, and, perhaps best of all, could be melted down and remoulded.16 Cast plaster panels were obviously delivered to Toronto's Pantages theatre (see Fig. 69), and it is possible that Baxter's firm may have shipped tons of breakable ornamentation from Montreal. But often a plastering firm working out of town set up a small shop on the site or rented one a short distance a way.
Fairly small ornaments were cast in fibrous or solid plaster in one piece. Sometimes they were additionally backed with cheesecloth, burlap or some other reinforcement. They were fastened to a plastered wall or ceiling with moist plaster, which was blended with a small wet brush. Running ornaments and mouldings were cast in sections, perhaps two or three feet long, and fixed in the same way. Breaks and joints between the castings were smoothed (or "jointed") with plaster. Large sections of ornament were cast in fibrous plaster as this material, reinforced with hemp fibre, was light (less than one quarter the weight of solid plaster), tough and quickly dried. These large sections were nailed or screwed in place, or affixed with fibre and plaster (Figs. 75-76).17
Cornices were cast in fibrous plaster as hollow shells and reinforced with pencil rods, or were run "on the bench" (not in situ). The template of the running mould was cut to leave beds in which mouldings and enrichments, cast in sections, were embedded.
Large free-standing features were produced in piece moulds and were fitted and stuck together. Certain of these features were left hollow if they had no supporting function. But each baluster which, like a plain column, was cast from two identical moulds, was filled with plaster and was supported by a steel rod in the centre. Supporting columns probably had a core of masonry, structural steel, wire lath and plaster mixed with coarser mortar, and were "cased" with two vertical plaster casts.18
Plaster ornament was the cheapest expensive-looking decoration available.19 Plaster was also used as a cheap substitute for marble. The columns in the auditorium, lobby and grand foyer, and the balustrade of the main staircase were scagliola, a rock-hard plaster composition which closely resembled marble (Fig. 77).
Mr. Fred Balmer, whose plastering firm decorated Loew's Uptown in Toronto, described the production of a scagliola column. It required considerable expertise. A two-foot strip of stretched oilcloth large enough to go around the plaster column was laid down, and veining colour applied by swirling on the surface a bunch of silk threads knotted at one end and dipped in pigments of suitable marble colour like sienna. On top of this, Keen's cement, a very fine plaster fortified with cement, was gently applied until it was a quarter of an inch thick. The ensemble was then wrapped around the column, and the oilcloth removed at a safe time. When the whole column had been treated and was dry, it was rubbed down with a pumice stone, followed by another fine stone, and then polished and oiled to give it a gleaming marble-like appearance.20
The steps of the main staircase were marble. They were reportedly shipped to the site numbered in order.21 Other areas subject to excessive wear and team, like floor trim, wall bases and radiator covers, were faced with marble.
The final movie palace touches were made with paint. Two-dimensional designs and specifications for the colours used throughout the theatre were laid down by William Eckhard's firm, which was wholly responsible for the free-hand art work. G. T. Green's firm did the rest of the painting, including any stencilling that decorated the theatre in 1920. Mr. Green does not think that much stencilling was done in the theatre at that time, but conceded that in the 1920s stencilling was a popular method of decorating large public buildings and even private homes.22 The earliest photographs available of the theatre's interior reveal that many of its wall areas were stencilled. Stencilling, like plaster ornament, was inexpensive. The stencil work seen in the Ottawa Capitol was relatively uncomplicated as it involved only two colours (Fig. 78).
Plasterwork was not painted in the same way as woodwork. G. T. Green was instructed to apply three coats of white lead mixed with linseed oil, turpentine and japan drier to "green" and even wet plaster. This step was to be followed by an application of ground colours and raw linseed oil. (Usually plasterwork had to be aged and its suction allayed before it was painted. It could be aged artificially by applying a solution of zinc sulphate.23) The procedure employed in the Capitol was completely new to Mr. Green and seemed reckless. He was told that it was followed in all American movie palaces. He waited in vain for the plaster to fall off.
The Capitol and other movie palaces looked much more expensive than they really were. Most of them in Canada cost less than $1 million, often including the cost of the site. The building type could be characterized as "architecture of illusion," and it was thoroughly appropriate that illusionistic edifices were built for motion pictures.
Many of the Capitol's former patrons would be surprised to learn that they had once gasped at wire lath and plaster domes, and wooden and scagliola columns and balustrades.