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