The flamboyant “Pueblo Deco” architecture of the KiMo Theater signaled the city’s new identity as a tourist destination at the “crossroads of New Mexico.”
In 1925, the Italian immigrant and aspiring theater impresario, Oreste Bachechi, responded to the national enthusiasm for exotic movie palaces and decided to build one himself on Central Avenue. He traveled to Hollywood, where he met Carl Boller, the senior partner of Boller Brothers. The well-known firm of “theatrical architects” would design some ninety theaters in the Midwest and California; after establishing the firm with his brother in Kansas City, Missouri, Carl Boller had moved to Los Angeles to open a branch office there in 1911.
Guided by a trader named Schmidt and accompanied by the artist, Carl Van Hassler, Boller toured New Mexico pueblos and reservations to collect the Indian motifs that give his Art Deco design its regionally specific, if highly romanticized, Southwestern flavor. Pablo Abeyta, the governor of Isleta Pueblo, acted as a consultant and suggested the theater’s name: KiMo is the Tewa word for mountain lion and literally means “king of its kind.” Boller associated locally with George Williamson, an Albuquerque architect charged with supervising the project.
The three-story building, with a rear five-story fly loft, has a modern structure of brick, steel, and concrete. It follows a standard plan with an entrance foyer and box office, a lobby, an auditorium with seating for 850 in the orchestra and 450 in a mezzanine balcony, and a proscenium stage. The main facade on Central Avenue, with retail spaces flanking the entrance marquee and two upper floors of offices in a grid of piers and spandrels, is drawn from the commercial architecture of Louis Sullivan, yet evokes the stepped massing of Spanish Colonial churches.
The exterior is finished with tan stucco and polychromatic terra-cotta ornaments. These culminate in an attic frieze of Hopi sun shields framed by spindles and bearing images of a Puebloan rain motif, the Navajo symbol for the cardinal directions, and a stylized bird from Acoma Pueblo pottery. The two-story lobby and the auditorium amplify this eclectic fantasia of Southwestern and Native American imagery. The five square columns punctuating the lobby end in elaborate plaster ornaments with lighting sconces fashioned after the skulls of longhorn cattle, in a regional variation on ancient Roman bucrania. Stylized birds signifying freedom form the balusters of the wrought-iron railings on the stairs up to the mezzanine balcony. Hassler painted the lobby’s upper walls with murals representing “The Seven Cities of Cibola,” the legendary cities of gold that lured Spanish explorers to New Mexico in the sixteenth century.
The iconographic riot continues in the auditorium. The plaster simulations of vigas on the ceiling are set against a starry night sky, and painted with sun, bird, swastika, and lightning symbols. Two suspended lighting fixtures depict the “Farewell Canoe,” the mythical canoe of a dead warrior celebrated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha” (1855). Navajo Yei figures decorate the walls, while both the side walls and the proscenium arch carry Southwestern bucrania friezes of alternating shields (with Indian motifs) and longhorn skulls (their eye sockets glowing red).
Damaged by several fires and unsympathetic alterations, the KiMo Theater closed in 1968, after I-40 had replaced Route 66 and depopulated the downtown. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, it was purchased by the city that same year. The building has twice been carefully renovated and restored, first in 1978–1982 and again in 1999–2000. Hassler’s lobby murals were restored in 1989, and a replica of the theater’s original neon KiMo sign, removed circa 1960, was installed in 2011. It currently serves as a community performance venue.
Bergman, Edna Heatherington. “The Fate of Architectural Theory in Albuquerque, New Mexico: buildings of four decades, 1920-1960.” Master’s thesis, University of New Mexico, 1978.
Cook, Sylvia, and William Osofsky, “The KiMo Theatre,” Bernalillo County, New Mexico. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1976. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Naylor, David. American Picture Palaces: The Architecture of Fantasy. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981.
Whiffen, Marcus, and Carla Breeze. Pueblo Deco: The Art Deco Architecture of the Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.