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Harrison Opera House

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1941–1943, Clarence A. Neff and T. David Fitz-Gibbon. 1990–1993, renovation and addition, Graham Gund Architects with Williams, Tazewell and Associates. Northeast corner of Virginia Beach Blvd. and Llewellyn Ave.
  • Harrison Opera House (Richard Guy Wilson)
  • Harrison Opera House (Richard Guy Wilson)

The Harrison Opera House was constructed during World War II as an entertainment complex for locally stationed troops who might otherwise have strayed to the bars and tattoo parlors farther downtown. Neff and Fitz-Gibbon's design combined two functions: an auditorium for stage shows and film screenings and an arena with bleacher seating for sporting events. The limestone exterior blended aspects of the Streamline Moderne and the International Style, including flat roofs, ribbon windows, and curving walls. It served as Norfolk's first real introduction to modern architecture. In the decades following the war, the Center Theater and the Arena Municipal Auditorium, as the two halves of the complex were once known, hosted virtually every major theatrical and sporting event held in the city. After the opening of Scope and Chrysler Hall in the 1970s, the complex stood dark much of the time.

What saved the Center Theater from almost certain demolition was its excellent acoustics. The building became the home of the newly formed Virginia Opera Company in the 1980s. As the company's reputation grew, so did the demands on its facility. In the early 1990s a $10 million renovation and enlargement was undertaken that both enhanced the theater's public areas and destroyed its historic character. A ponderous postmodern addition now envelops three sides of the old auditorium. Four massive towers with hipped roofs, intended to harmonize with the nearby Chrysler Museum of Art, mark the corners. The curve of the west facade echoes the curve of the old facade, which now defines the inner lobby. Inside the centerpiece of the addition is the upper-level lobby with its enormous plate glass windows and tiered chandeliers. Oval staircases within the towers link this level with the lower lobby. The auditorium is essentially unchanged save for the addition of box seating on either side of the proscenium. Because it was largely unaffected by the renovation, the east end of the building retains its historic appearance. This area is now used for storage and scenery construction.

Writing Credits

Richard Guy Wilson et al.


What's Nearby


Richard Guy Wilson et al., "Harrison Opera House", [Norfolk, Virginia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont, Richard Guy Wilson and contributors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 428-428.

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