Historic Structures

Building Description Whittier Theatre, Whittier California

The Whittier Theatre was a respectable but not masterful example of a building type, "a theater combined with a forecourt of retail stores" that came into being in California in the mid-1920s. It was certainly one of the largest and most elaborate public buildings in the city of Whittier, although it was far from being one of the oldest as there are still several late 19th-century and turn-of-the-century buildings that have survived. The theater complex was a classic example of the Spanish eclectic architectural style, incorporating such hallmark elements as tile roofs, ornamental tile work and ironwork, balconies, a courtyard with fountain, window grilles, arched doorways, and a tower. (Architectural historians Virginia and Lee McAlester note that the Spanish eclectic style "reached its apex during the 1920s and early 1930s and passed rapidly from favor during the 1940s").

The interior of the theater was meant to evoke the courtyard of a Spanish hacienda, with stuccoed walls, ornamental tile and ironwork, balconies, and tile roof projections from the auditorium's side walls.

Although a Whittier Daily News article of November 15, 1928 touted the proposed building as "the last word in theater construction" and stated that there would be "no expense spared," such was clearly not the case. The $160,000 budget was actually quite modest compared to budgets for some other Los Angeles-area theaters being built at the same time. For example, a two-story reinforced concrete theater designed for Venice listed a budget of $400,000, and another theater-and-shops complex ready to begin construction near culver City listed $200,000. A Hollywood Boulevard project estimated $500,000 for its theater building. Money-saving shortcuts were evident in the construction of the whittier Theatre. The tile "roof" was merely an ornamental border, the rear of the building was remarkably plain and utilitarian, and there were many large surfaces of exposed, unplastered concrete, both inside and out.

The main theater building was a long rectangle flanked by two wings forming a courtyard. The eastern wing was the smaller of the two. It was trapezoidal in shape, with the south end attached directly to and extending across most of the front of the theater. An octagonal tower stood at the northwest corner of the theater building and connected to an arched passageway attached to the larger, western wing. This wing was roughly rectangular in shape, with a somewhat rounded facade curving around from Whittier Boulevard to Gretna Avenue. The inner courtyard was basically a squared-off "U" shape, with straight walls angling slightly outward toward Whittier Boulevard. The portion of the courtyard closest to the theater was covered by the projecting balcony of the second story, and the tower loomed overhead.

There were a total of twenty archways or bays around the north, east, and west facades: The east wing had a single archway facing Whittier Boulevard and three facing the inner court. The theater had a single large arch over the entrance to the foyer. The arched passageway led from the courtyard to the rear of the buildings. The west wing had five archways facing the inner court, and nine wrapping around from Whittier Boulevard down Gretna Avenue. The wings were one-story structures. The theater auditorium had a second-floor gallery for the projection room and balcony, as well as the offices in the tower. The rooflines of the theater auditorium and stage flies rose even higher, and the multi-level tower was the tallest structure on the site.

The theater was 76'4" wide and 160'l" long. The west wing was 35' wide at the street, widening to 49' where it adjoined the theater building. It was 75'8" from front to back. The tower was 17' in diameter at the base, tapering to 10' in diameter at the top of the column; the tower was 72' high from base to roof peak. The arched passageway was 16' wide and 63' long. The west wing was 75'9" across at its widest (mid-point), and 47'2" across at its narrowest (rear) point. The wing was 139' from front to back.

As originally designed, the basement, more than any other part of the theater, revealed the transitional era in which the Whittier Theatre was built. Below the wide and deep wooden stage, the basement housed not only the heating and ventilation equipment but five dressing rooms (including one large one for the use of "the chorus") and two bathrooms. Plans drawn up by the B.F. Shearer Company in 1947 do not show these stage-related facilities, but they do plot the locations of the various furnaces, vents, fans, motors, dampers, air washers, pump, filters, deflectors, fresh air intakes and air return points, noting that the "present furnaces and vent" and "present fan and motor" were to be relocated and reused.

The single-story first story east wing was designed by Bushnell to be a cafe restaurant. City directories show that it first opened as the McNees Cafe; in 1937 or 1938 it became the O.W. Hinegardner Restaurant, which lasted for a year or two. The updated 1937 Sanborn map labels the east wing "restaurant." In 1939, the Betty Matthews Dress Shop began its thirty-year tenancy. One photo, c. late 1940s-early 1950s, shows the facade of the dress shop with its sign facing Whittier Boulevard.

Bushnell1s drawings are the only known depiction of the east wing floorplan. Bushnell1s plans depict a simple, open space, with restrooms at the rear of the cafe, adjoining the restrooms (also inside the footprint of the east wing) that opened onto the theater foyer.

The single-story west wing was designed to house three stores and was known as the "market building." Store 1, in the northeast corner, was roughly 30' x 40'; stud walls separated it from Stores 2 and 3. Store 2 was quite small, roughly 20' square, opening onto the courtyard patio with a glass partition on one side to separate it from store 3. Store 3 was much larger and irregular in shape, with restrooms and storage rooms toward the rear. City directories show that pharmacies were on site in the west wing from 1929 until at least 1973. The 1937 Sanborn map indicated that the drugstore occupied store 1. It expanded in 1948 or 1949 into Store 2, which had previously been tenanted by a congeries of businesses including a women's clothing store, a dry cleaners, tile contractor and beauty salons. After the Whittier Drug Store expanded, this area may have been used successively by a post office substation, a watch repairman, and a photo supply and tobacco shop. Store 3 also got off to a shaky start. The list of tenants included a golf shop, florist, liquor store, drapery studio and tile contractor before settling, c. 1940, into a furniture store. No interior views or subsequent floorplans are known for this wing.

The ground floor of the theater building included a narrow foyer (only 17'4" wide at its narrowest) entered by way of the courtyard. Bathrooms were located at the northeast corner of the foyer. Doors in the curved rear auditorium wall led to the theater seats. The auditorium had three long blocks of seats separated longitudinally by two aisles, with side aisles along the auditorium walls as well. The deep stage extended out on an apron beyond the proscenium arch, and a narrow crescent-shaoed orchestra pit lay between the stage footlights and the first row of seats. The ground floor of the tower contained the box office and two other small offices, separated by stud walls.

The theater's balcony was directly above the foyer. Its principal function was to house the projection booth, and associated work rooms were secondary. Small cubicles labeled "generator room" and "battery room" were on either side, and the entire projection booth area was flanked by a large "work room" and an "observation room." There were no indications of theater seating for movie patrons. A door off a small hallway led onto the exterior balcony overlooking the courtyard. The second floor of the tower housed a larger office, used by the theater manager. The second-floor office above the arched passageway at the rear of the courtyard was used initially by architect David S. Bushnell. According to city directories, it was also used until about 1934 by the building contractor, Wheatland Construction Company. The office was then vacant until about 1940. It was then listed briefly with the name Mrs. Nora Davis, and then was no longer listed as a separate address. Presumably, it continued in use as a theater office.

Most of the 1947 S. Charles Lee and B.F. Shearer Company plans involved alternatives for the proposed construction of an auditorium balcony for additional theater seating, plus the construction of restrooms in space taken over from the tower or the exterior balcony. This interior balcony was never built. Additional seating seems to have been obtained by removing the proscenium arch and placing chairs at the front of the auditorium.

The octagonal tower had three additional floors above the second-floor office, but they were not designed to be occupied.

The foyer had its Spanish vase-and-tile water fountain, and metal and glass hanging lamps (the latter are not indicated on the plans, but they were still extant). The interior side walls and proscenium arch of the theater were the focal points for interior ornamentation. The walls were designed to suggest the inner patio of a hacienda, replete with balconies; tile roof overhangs; towers and oriel-like turrets and "chimneys"; artstone window grilles; plastered and stuccoed corbels, arched doors, and pilasters; and extensive use of vari-colored stucco blocks and decorative Spanish tile to form a high dado. The proscenium arch was an extremely elaborate, almost churriqueresque montage of plasterwork ornament and tile. The inner border of the arch was fringed with dagged plasterwork, something like a vergeboard. Two rows of decorative tile formed the front edge of the arch, and the entire face of the proscenium arch was covered with a diagonal grid of diamond-shaped, bas-relief plaster ornaments. A frieze of decorative plasterwork ran across the top of the arch. The springline of the arch was supported by two twisted plaster columns, flanked by vertical bands of tiles. The convex walls of two large towers, one on each side of the stage, had a large arched opening; each tower was topped with a crenelated roof ornament. The orchestra pit railing was covered with fabric plush, and cord rails were mounted near the steps on either side of the stage.

The proscenium arch and flanking towers seem to have been removed (c. 1947) in the interests of adding more seating at the front of the auditorium. A 1986 photo (Whittier Daily News November 13, 1986) shows the movie screen with at least two sets of curtains, but there is no indication of the arch. Instead, a looped drapery valance runs across the top of the screen.

The undated (1947?) plans for the foyer proposed a built-in snack bar on the south wall of the foyer, complete with a "Coca-Cola cooler," popcorn machine, and glass display shelves for candy. The snack bar was to be a rectangle with rounded outer corners with a "brass edge strip." Movie poster showcases were depicted near the foyer's east exit. A new replacement snack bar was subsequently installed on the north wall of the foyer, east of the entry doors.

No details are known about any interior ornamentation of the east or west wings.