Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Craftsman in Searcy

I started getting interested in architecture when we took an architectural tour in Chicago. We got to explore the inside of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. The guide showed us minute details in skyscrapers that I had never considered before; previously I had only imagined city buildings as vertical glass shoeboxes.

I'm still no expert, but the American Craftsman style has grown to be one of my favorite residential styles. And fortunately for me, Searcy is loaded with examples.

It's a style that evolved first in Britain, and then once it was done being popular there, we started doing it (like most things that come from Europe...). It was derived from the bungalows used by the British Empire in the heart of India. In fact, the style is still sometimes called "bungalow," although "bungalow" can also generally mean "low, one-story house."

To start, there's one Craftsman house in Searcy that most of its residents should already be familiar with:

Is it Midnight Oil? IT IS Midnight Oil. Craftsman houses were (originally) built to keep the sweltering heat of India at bay by promoting as much air circulation as possible. For this reason, Craftsman bungalows grow rarer as one travels farther north. Here are some general architectural characteristics of the Craftsman house:

The first is an emphasis on wood and natural materials, although Midnight Oil is mostly covered in stucco. It might have been added later. Next...

...long, low-pitched roofs, usually hipped and gabled...

...eaves that overhang severely...

...tiny columns, usually squared and tapered...

...a deep front porch, usually extended from the main roof and supported by the tiny columns, and...

...exposed rafters or fanciful brackets.

Craftsman houses started to wane in popularity in the 1930s. You'll find most of them in early suburban districts close to the city center (Little Rock has a wealth of them in the difficult neighborhoods around Central High School). Their location hasn't been kind to them: proximity to the city meant many Craftsman houses were victim to the white flight of the 1960s and onwards. Fortunately, we're starting to see these neighborhoods slowly climbing back to their feet.

But Searcy hasn't really had to deal with any of that. Its Craftsman homes are still elegant and populated, for the most part. Here's a selection of some of the best I've found...

Craftsman style is almost purely residential, but occasionally will carry over into the commercial realm. Take a look at this Citgo station on Race Street:

A low, faux-gabled roof with exposed "rafters," supported by thin columns.

As a last note, I discovered something rather odd on this Crafstman-influenced house on Market Street.

Frugal Searcians will recognize this building as the Methodist Church's thrift store, but there's a clue to an earlier identity in the iron railings over the entrance.

What looks to be an inverted, incomplete peace-sign I recognize to actually be the letter "Y." There's one family in Searcy who always incorporates that letter into their estates. If you haven't figured it out yet, I'll give you a hint: they're in the dessert industry.


(it's the Yarnells)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Two more old theaters (and one new one)

It's two hours past midnight and I can't stop thinking about theaters. Is..is there something wrong with me? Probably. Anyway, I know I just posted about theaters, but I don't think I can sleep until I unload a little bit.

We took a small-highway exploration drive back from Fort Smith last weekend, both to avoid the monotony of the interstate, and to scour some small towns for ghost signs. But I also found things like this!

The Savage theater (what an awesome name) in Booneville is one of the more recent of the theaters we've talked about, having opened in 1947 with a movie called Suddenly in Spring. The facade could use a paint job, and the plastic letters in the marquee look like they haven't been changed since 1947, but the Savage otherwise is a pretty nice piece. It evidently still shows movies on weekends, too.

The Strand lies in the faraway world of Rockland, Maine. You can always tell the older small theaters by their entirely-brick structure, sometimes with retail spaces sandwiching the main entrance. The Strand was built in 1923. Here's a postcard from the official site from its good ol' days:

Not much has changed! The theater remained in full operation right up until 2000, even having its balcony renovated to make way for a second screen. Then, some nearby multiplex bought it. Did they use their power to restore the building, bringing about a new genesis for the 87-year-old venue? No. They just closed it. Did I say something about being positive about the 21st century? I'm taking it back now.

But fortunately this story has a happy ending. The theater was bought in 2004 by a local admirer, who managed to get it restored and reopened by 2005. The reopening was celebrated by a block party and a showing of Buster Keaton's The General. Admission was priced at 25 cents, harking back to a more awesome time. Maine: the way life should be. It's true.

Next, here's a New Theatre for you.

You don't see it? Take a closer look.

Whoa! That is a ghost of a ghost sign. So yes; I lied. The New Theatre, located in downtown Fort Smith, Arkansas, is actually the oldest theater in this post, having opened in 1911 as a Vaudeville stage. The first inkling I got of this lost treasure was from this remarkable facade:

The (marble, I believe) title above the awning reads "Sparks, 1922." On the right and left of the awning are two retail spaces, now used for a small cafe and a used book store, respectively. Under the awning is this art deco door:

The lady in the bookstore kindly informed me that this door was once an entrance to the New Theatre, which she referred to as the "Old Malco Theater." The New was bought by the Malco company in the 40s and was then switched to an entirely movie-centric venue. Around the corner is what I believe to be the original entrance.

The 1911 date coincides with the same year the New was built, and shares an architect with the bookstore's facade ("Sparks," who I know nothing about). Some of the concrete blocks making up the sides of the facade are chipped and missing like teeth. Whatever decorative entrance used to be under the grand arch is now covered with plywood and modern steel doors, and Christmas lights adorn the covering. Two great rusted chains, which might have once supported a marquee, now dangle pointlessly. And take a look at the gargoyle-esque head in the middle of the arch:

Click to enlarge; somewhere down the line he seems to have partially swallowed a wasp nest.

When we peered through the windows at street level, we could see tremendous, vaulted ceilings and decaying areas which obviously once held chandeliers. Mold and rot had built up everywhere. On my new favorite site I was able to find a picture of the interior of the New Theatre:

It's a small image, but still. Good Lord. I am informed that a then-relatively-unknown Al Jolson performed here once upon a time.

As the pictures might tell you, the tale of the New Theatre does not have a happy ending like that of the Strand. It's a gigantic and painstakingly beautiful product of a time when our entertainment spaces were just as amazing as the entertainment itself. And it's been left here, deserted, to decompose since 1980. Is it funny, that we travel to places like Paris and London for their meticulously preserved streets and buildings, when we used to have the same things? We've just let asphalt and Alzheimer's pave them over. But I guess it's time to lay the New Theatre, disdain for progress, and myself to rest. Perhaps someday I'll come to forgive my culture for being too eager for its own good. But that day is not today.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A gift for the theatrical

A while ago I talked about old theaters in White County. Whenever I drive around in old towns, one of the first things I look for (up there with ghost signs and train stations) are its theaters. Sometimes it's almost masochistic, because while I love to see old theaters, they tend to be in such disrepair that I almost feel wounded.

Sheridan's theater represents what's usually the barest minimum the remnant of a town's theater. The facade has been wiped clean, the windows painted over and the steel art moderne awning is eroded. The ghost of "SCOUNT" is printed on the facade, suggesting this building has been used for more than movies. It at least still is recognizable as a theater, as long as you know generally what theaters looked like. I do suppose it's in better condition than Kensett's poor guy.

This one in Grayville, Illinois has joined a host of other old theaters in becoming a concert venue. Though the whole effect of the building is pretty unassuming, there are a few curious things to be spotted: a mysterious "W" adorning the front of the marquee (probably referring to the theater's original name); a pair of glass-cube windows (present on many 1940s-60s theaters); and two loudspeakers mounted on the top of the marquee for whatever reason.

The gorgeous Malco theater in downtown Hot Springs has been restored and is now the home of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute. Most of Hot Springs' downtown district is pretty nice, but once you hike out of the National Park area, you tend to find some areas that have seen better days.

Just down the street from the Malco is the waning Central theater, which must have had a more elaborate marquee in better times. Older times were better times for most of the street around the Center theater; many of the neighboring buildings are vacant or home to last-legs type institutions like bars and antique stores.

The Melba of downtown Batesville (one of my favorite downtowns in this area) is an art deco theater fairly similar to Searcy's Rialto both in design and function: the Melba still shows movies. Down the street from the Melba is another excellent specimen.

Though I am not certain, the Landers appears to be an older theater, judging by its brick facade. The signage probably came later. As you can tell from the picture, the Fellowship Bible Church (which is gigantic and rich, if you didn't know) have bought out the building. They have since gutted out the inside. I don't think they're going to change the exterior, but even with this the town of Batesville have gotten rather peeved at them. I am mildly peeved as well, but I can think of worse uses for the building. As a bonus, here is an old picture of the Landers, which I found at the Independence County Museum:

Note, of course, the different sign and marquee. I can't decide which I like more, the old art deco rounded letters or the more 1950s-style separated neon ones.

I kinda feel like adding in a bit of bitter old-man-ish talk about how much better old theaters are than new ones, but I'm not an old man yet. I'm still trying to find things that I like about the 21st century, though, so I guess I'll try to be positive. We have air conditioning and multiple screens! Yayy...(I'm bitter).

I'm going on a little road trip this weekend between here and Fort Smith, so I ought to come back with a lot more stuff. That's good news!