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Attucks Theater

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1919, Harvey N. Johnson, Sr., with Charles T. Russell. 1008–1012 Church St.
  • Attucks Theater
  • Attucks Theater

Church Street was once the commercial and cultural heart of Norfolk's African American community, its sidewalks lined with shops, restaurants, and a variety of other establishments. It was also the city's major north-south thoroughfare, taking its name from historic St. Paul's Church. The postwar redevelopment of downtown and the creation of St. Paul's Boulevard, however, resulted in the truncation of Church Street's southern end and a major drop in its pedestrian and motor traffic. Moreover, with the end of racial segregation, the street lost most of its vitality as blacks went elsewhere in search of shopping and entertainment. The subsequent widening of the street into a suburban-style parkway during the 1980s and 1990s has resulted in the wholesale demolition of the historic business district and its replacement with strip shopping centers. Only the Attucks Theater survives as a forlorn reminder of the street's heyday between the 1920s and 1940s.

With its densely packed urban context now destroyed, the Attucks Theater now has a somewhat awkward appearance. Only the lobby facade was meant to be seen from the street, since the massive brick auditorium would have once been separated from neighboring buildings only by narrow alleys. Missing its decorative marquee, the facade is a sober exercise in the Renaissance Revival. Terra-cotta pilasters divide the brick facade into three bays with wide tripartite windows; the name plate below the cornice and the date plate above it provide a modicum of ornament.

The lobby has been remodeled beyond recognition, but the basic contours of the 600-seat auditorium remain. A graceful balcony curves around the rear of the theater while box seats flank the square proscenium. The theater's most unusual interior feature—and the one that holds the key to its unusual name—is the asbestos fire curtain over the stage. On it the New York–based Lee Lash Studios painted a stirring representation of the Boston Massacre. Crispus Attucks, an African American man believed to have been the first victim of the American Revolution, is the figure sprawled face down in the front of the scene. Upstairs over the lobby were offices once rented to black professionals.

The Attucks is purported to be the nation's oldest theater designed, developed, and financed by African Americans under the auspices of the Twin Cities Amusement Corporation. Harvey Johnson, the theater's designer, was a prominent Norfolk architect who later entered the ministry. The theater began its life as a cinema and vaudeville house with performers such as Ethel Waters and Cab Calloway. In 1933 it was renovated and renamed the Booker T. Theater. The theater was closed in 1955 and the lobby converted to retail use. Closed for some years and threatened with removal during urban renewal efforts, the theater was saved by a local group, restored, and reopened in 2004.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Richard Guy Wilson et al.
Updated By: 
Richard Guy Wilson (2020)
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Citation

Richard Guy Wilson et al., "Attucks Theater", [Norfolk, Virginia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/VA-01-NK89.

Print Source

Buildings of Virginia: Tidewater and Piedmont, Richard Guy Wilson and contributors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, 437-437.

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