Castle Theater, Manchester

Castle Theater, Manchester (Don
Hirt, photographer)

Capitol Theatre, Burlington

Capitol Theatre, Burlington (Steve Frevert, photographer)

Charles Theatre, Charles City

Charles Theatre, Charles City (Paula Mohr, photographer)

Malek Theatre, Independence

Malek Theatre, Independence (Paula Mohr, photographer)

Homegrown Talent:
Wetherell & Harrison, Des Moines

No other Iowa architectural firm designed more movie theaters in the state than the Des Moines firm Wetherell & Harrison. While this architectural office was a general practice one designing residential, public, and religious buildings in a variety of architectural styles, the firm also designed movie theaters for syndicates and independents. These buildings, often in the Art Deco and Art Moderne styles with striking vertical elements, stepped façades, polychromatic façades, and aerodynamic marquees, added a dramatic and sophisticated note to Iowa's main streets. Fortunately, many of Wetherell & Harrison's movie theaters survive for Iowans and visitors to enjoy.

Wetherell & Harrison traced its origins to 1898 when Frank Wetherell (1869-1961) began practicing architecture in Oskaloosa. In 1906, he established a practice in Des Moines with Oliver Smith. In 1925, Roland Harrison (1888-1988) joined the firm and two years later Frank's son Edwin (1895-1977) entered the office and became a partner soon after. While both young men appear to have trained as draftsmen, Harrison also studied for one year at Harvard's Graduate School of Design and Wetherell studied architecture at the University of Illinois. The firm later become Wetherell-Ericsson-Architects and, in 2007, merged with RDG Planning & Design (more information about the firm and its partners can be found in Wesley I. Shank's Iowa's Historic Architects: A Biographical Dictionary).

It was during the partnership of Edwin Wetherell and Roland Harrison that the firm designed more than one hundred of movie and drive-in theaters throughout the Midwest, with a high concentration in Iowa.

One of the firm's earliest movie theaters was the remodeling of a building in Manchester to create a 600-seat theater. The Castle Theater opened up in 1935 and true to its name; the façade appears impenetrable with large expanses of masonry, narrow slit windows, a narrow balcony, and a suggestion of battlements near the top of the façade. This revivalist design may have looked back to some of the firm's earlier work or may have been requested by an owner interested in evoking a medieval fantasy for theatergoers in this small town.

Also in the 1930s and 1940s, the firm began to embrace a more modern aesthetic for its movie theater designs. Three theaters typify this period of the firm's work and are also among the firm's best preserved examples: the Capitol in Burlington, the Charles in Charles City, and the Malek in Independence.

The Art Deco style Capitol Theatre (1937) in Burlington is a bold and dramatic composition of colored structural glass and terra cotta in shades of burgundy, brown, and gold. Three vertical elements evocative of a massive pipe organ rise higher than the rest of the façade. The large element in the center of the façade also projects out from the face of the building marking the location of the ticket booth. The architect Roland Harrison, speaking to the Burlington Hawk-Eye, emphasized that the Capitol was "in the latest modern manner." With the latest equipment, electrical lighting, and acoustical panels, the interior was designed to enhance both the visual and auditory experience of movie viewing.

Another Art Deco example is the Charles Theater (1934) which has a stepped façade at the roofline and a highly polychromatic façade in deep blues, red, and white with gold accents. This theater sat 700 patrons originally. Described as "an architectural triumph" at the time of its opening, the interior was richly appointed. The lobby was decorated in peach and chartreuse with a filigree lighting fixture. One innovation was the elimination of a balcony with all seats on the main floor.

In the 1940s, the firm moved away from the rich coloration typical of their theater designs from the decade before. The Art Moderne style Malek Theatre (1947) in Independence has a stepped tower of glass block and Glastone panels (a Vitrolite-faced concrete masonry tile) in beige and white with blue accents. Large sections of wall on either side of this tower are clad in light-colored Lannon stone. At night, light shining through the glass block and the red and blue neon racing across the marquee beckoned patrons. Terrazzo flooring and decorative painting on the interior carried through the Art Moderne design of the exterior. The 800-seat auditorium was carpeted with plush wool carpeting and outfitted with indirect lighting illuminating the space with multicolored light.

In both quality and quantity, Wetherell & Harrison's work changed the character of main streets throughout Iowa. Their movie theater exteriors were clad in modern materials such as structural glass, glass block, terra cotta, and neon. Complemented with rich carpets, paint schemes, and lighting fixtures inside, the firm created a luxurious and sophisticated ambiance setting the stage for the motion pictures shown within. Their progressive movie theaters are significant for introducing an element of modernity and glamour to downtown and for providing Iowans with a place in which to enjoy one of America's favorite pastimes.