In light of the State Theatre's recent Renovation Project of the Year Award, Patrick Roach, AIA, LEED AP brings us a deep dive of the theatre's rich history.

For decades, the State Theatre was caricaturized around Ann Arbor as the red-headed step-sister of the Michigan Theater, our home town’s opulent movie palace. By the time I was in college at the University of Michigan, half of the theater was gone and the place had the reputation of the grungy student hangout where you would go watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show on a Saturday night in between stops at the local bars near campus. 
Not mincing words, if you went there to actually watch the movie, it was awful. And half of it really was gone. The orchestra level was lost to history in the 1980's, when its historic interior was torn out and converted into retail space. It is no surprise that the old Art Deco gem had been threatened many times throughout its history. However, when I think of the State Theatre, I think of a history of lucky breaks. 
The first one came before the place even opened. 
Both the Michigan Theater and the State Theatre were built for and owned by the Butterfield Theatre Company, which owned theaters across Michigan and including, at one point, most of the movie houses in Ann Arbor. The Byzantine Revival-style Michigan Theater had opened in 1928, one of a chain of sister theaters. It was one of the first buildings in Ann Arbor with central air conditioning, and it was designed and equipped for silent movies and Vaudeville acts. The on-stage and on-screen entertainment could be enjoyed with musical accompaniment by the theater’s pit orchestra or its fine Barton organ. Through the Great Depression and in the years coming up to the Second World War, business was booming for the Michigan Theater. Butterfield engaged renowned theater architect C. Howard Crane to design a second movie house in Ann Arbor, at the intersection of State Street and Liberty Street, a short block from the Michigan Theater.


Crane was an established architect in Detroit, having earned his stripes working for both Albert Kahn and Smith Hinchman and Grylls. Over his celebrated and prolific career, he designed 250 theaters across North America. More than sixty of these theaters were built in the greater Detroit area alone, including such local treasures as Orchestra Hall, the Capitol Theater (now known as the Detroit Opera House), and the stunning Fox Theater. 
Design work on Ann Arbor’s new State Theater was underway by 1940. At 1,900 seats, the new venue edged the Michigan Theater in size, but it was also a dramatic departure in function and style. The new theater was designed in the Art Deco style, keenly modern with its restrained ornamentation, streamlined aesthetic, and a unique folded façade rendered in yellow iron-spot brick, with clean limestone copings. The design announced its presence on State Street with a massive, neon-lit marquee flanked by brick pylons striped in red and yellow brick. This was a bold statement of a new age in cinema, and the new house’s technical features trumpeted this new age as well. There was no orchestra pit, and no organ. The stage and proscenium were but mere gestures compared to her grand sister on Liberty Street. The State was built for the talkies and fully dedicated to cinema. 
Construction began early in 1941, as war raged throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. When the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor finally brought the world war to the United States, many domestic construction projects went on hold as steel, aluminum, and other materials were diverted to the war effort. But by this time, construction was well underway and the materials and finishes for the theater had been either installed or stockpiled. The Ann Arbor news reported that the project “was able to obtain materials and equipment which are no longer available. At the present time it would be impossible to build a theater like the State. Ann Arbor’s newest motion picture house probably will also be Michigan’s newest until the end of the war.” The theater opened on time on March 17, 1942, headlining Dorothy Lamour and Jimmy Dorsey in a raucous, and rather cheesy, wartime musical named “The Fleet’s In”. This serendipitous timing was the State’s first of many lucky breaks.


The war did finally end a few years later, and as America shifted into a postwar economic boom, rising fortunes brought many new technological marvels into peoples’ homes. Along with automobiles, washers and dryers, and refrigerators, more and more Americans could now afford television sets. The great movie houses of the early twentieth century felt the pressure of competition and obsolescence as time wore on. Cinema design and planning began to move away from large venues, focusing more on multiple screens and smaller auditoriums. It was harder to fill a large movie house night after night, and the old-school one-screen venues lacked the ability to offer multiple features simultaneously. By the 1970’s, many of our treasured movie houses around the nation were either already lost, or being closed. 
Butterfield was feeling this pressure right along with its competitors. In 1979, the company subdivided the State into four smaller theaters, by closing off the balcony level from the orchestra level and dividing both levels in half. This brought the total seating capacity down significantly, to 1,400 seats, and the theater’s original finishes were hidden away behind red velvet curtains. A moment of diminishment, to be sure, but it proved to be the State’s second lucky break. Butterfield’s lease on the Michigan Theater had also ended that year, and the company made the decision to close the venerable theater and vacate the building. But the State was spared for a few more years. (Things didn’t turn out so badly for the Michigan Theater, either, but we’ll get to that). 
In the mid-1980’s, Butterfield sold the State Theater, along with its other remaining theaters, to GKC Theaters, Inc. GKC owned and operated the theater until it determined that the State was no longer viable, and sold the State in 1989. The new owner was a real estate management company owned by local entrepreneur and Borders bookstore co-founder Tom Borders. The new ownership elected to close the theater altogether while they considered the fate of the building, but it was never a mystery that the owners had plans for the old movie house, and those plans involved a major change in use. The orchestra-level theaters and entrance lobby were cleared out and the main floor was leveled out to create retail space on the main floor. The balcony level theaters were retained. The original box office was converted into a new entrance for the theaters, and a small lobby was carved out of an old storage room.


The original State Theatre

It might seem hard to believe, but this was the State’s third lucky break. I think Tom Borders was first and foremost looking for an investment opportunity with the State Theater, but he also knew that it was an important landmark in town. Lots of ideas floated up about what might become of the building. I recall one rendering I saw in my college days that proposed a massive glass ziggurat of a high-rise jutting forth from the shell of the old State. At least it gets points for imagination, depending on who you ask. But Borders had held on to the balcony level theaters in hopes that someone would come along and start showing movies there. It happened in 1992, when a father and son duo redecorated the State’s mezzanine lounge in a Hawaiian motif and reopened the house. A valiant effort, but the venture didn’t survive. Borders sold the State in 1997. 
It is here that we turn back to the old Michigan Theater, abandoned in 1979 and almost lost to history. This threat inspired a dedicated group of local volunteers to form the Michigan Theater Foundation. The group successfully lobbied to save the theater, resumed operations, and eventually restored the Michigan to its original splendor. In 1999 the Michigan assumed operation of the State Theater, affording them the opportunity to expand their programming with the two additional screens. But the Michigan Theater Foundation also realized that the State was a threatened resource, and they began to develop a contingency plan, should the building’s owners decide to change directions. The call to action came in 2014, when the State’s owners announced that they were planning to redevelop the theater’s balcony level as lease office space. 
The Michigan Theater Foundation jumped to action – and the State caught its latest lucky break. The foundation proposed to purchase the mezzanine lounge, the theater lobby and the balcony level theaters from the building owners as a condominium. The foundation hired Quinn Evans Architects to conduct a “due diligence” assessment and study for the theaters. We assessed the theaters and their related building systems and prepared some initial design studies to determine the feasibility of needed improvements, including renovation of the theaters, barrier-free access, and overall improvement of the theater-going experience. The purchase went through, and in 2016 we teamed up with O’Neal Construction to begin a design-build project to implement the improvements.  
Our project at the State Theatre provided four state-of-the-art theaters with digital sound and projection equipment. The venue is fully accessible, serviced by an elevator and new restrooms. The interior design echoes the original materials, colors and finishes, reinterpreted in a contemporary aesthetic. The renovated State Theatre has allowed the Michigan Theater Foundation to expand its offerings, including independent film and first-run features. The transformation of this iconic Ann Arbor landmark will enrich our community for years to come.