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Wells Theater

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1912–1913, E. C. Home and Sons. 1979–1980, renovation, Carter, Zinkl, Herman and Chapman. 1985–1987, restoration, Hanbury Evans Newill Vlattas and Company. 110 E. Tazewell St. Open for performances
  • Wells Theater

The pinnacle of opulence when it opened in Norfolk in 1912, the Wells Theater was the flagship of a southern chain operated by Wells Amusement Enterprises. The theater hosted a variety of local and touring productions, and Will Rogers and Fred Astaire were among the many luminaries who performed on its stage. By the 1930s, however, legitimate theatrical productions at the Wells gave way to cinema, and by the 1960s the once-grand theater had become an X-rated movie house. Moreover, the proscenium was blocked and the stage and backstage were sublet to a disreputable nightclub. Like so many other downtown venues, the theater might have been demolished had some prescient preservationists not realized that its architectural fabric remained remarkably intact behind the garish placards. Restored as the home of the Virginia Stage Company during the 1980s, the Wells Theater has been returned to legitimate use once again.

As originally designed by E. C. Horne and Sons of New York, the exterior of the Wells Theater is composed of a relatively plain auditorium and fly loft set behind an elaborately decorated lobby tower and commercial wing. The building is framed in reinforced concrete, but its exterior is clad in brick, tile mosaic, and terra-cotta in a manner that might best be characterized as Spanish Renaissance. The focal point is the three-story tower with its hipped, tiled roof supported by brackets, its lions' head ornaments, and its bow-shaped entrance. The theater's most stunning interior space is the outer lobby, where an oval dome carried on a high drum is ringed by stained glass windows. In a tour de force of Art Nouveau sculpture, graceful caryatids surround the treelike piers of the inner lobby. The auditorium once seated more than 1,000 spectators on three levels, but its capacity has been reduced to about 675 seats on two levels. Triple-tiered boxes flank the restored proscenium; above is a large mural depicting Apollo and the Muses.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Richard Guy Wilson et al.
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Citation

Richard Guy Wilson et al., "Wells Theater", [Norfolk, Virginia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/VA-01-NK27.

Print Source

Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont, Richard Guy Wilson and contributors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 410-411.

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