Date of Completion: 1920
Architect: Thomas White Lamb
Nominated by: Lisa Gretzky, MPP (Windsor West)
“It is a pleasure to accept this magnificent and beautiful theatre [on] behalf of the people of Windsor. …It is dedicated to the use of the citizens of the Border Cities.”
Mayor E.B. Winter, Border City Star, December 31, 1920.
From Vaudeville to violins, Windsor’s glamorous Capitol Theatre has been entertaining audiences for almost 100 years. Narrowly surviving demolition, it has retaken its place as a cultural and entertainment palace that harkens back to the golden age of cinema.
Part of an empire
Originally known as Loew’s Windsor Theatre, affectionately known as the Cap, first opened its doors on December 31, 1920. It was built as part of a large entertainment empire formed by American entrepreneur Marcus Loew, who developed a network of theatres across North America in the early twentieth century and was a founder of MGM studios.
At the time when the Capitol Theatre was completed, Windsor was a collection of bustling industrial towns that made up the Border Cities, taking advantage of their strategic location along the American border. Reflective of Windsor’s stature, the Loew’s Windsor was — at its time — the largest single-floor theatre in Canada, seating almost 2000 attendees with lavish decorations reflective of the so-called movie palaces, a new kind of entertainment venue developed in the 1910s to provide an upscale film experience for the upper class.
View of the Auditorium of the Capitol circa 1947, Image from Ontario Archives courtesy of Museum Windsor
Thomas White Lamb and the Adamesque
The Capitol’s designer, American architect Thomas White Lamb, was the preeminent theatre designer of his time. He was the architect of what many consider to be the first movie palace, the 1913 Regent Theatre in Harlem, New York, and would be responsible for over 170 theatres throughout his life. Lamb’s expertise in theatres was a great fit for Loew’s growing entertainment empire, and many of Loew’s theatres across Canada and the US were designed by Lamb including the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto (1913) and the demolished Capitol Theatre in Ottawa (1920).
Lamb’s work is noted for the diversity of influences and lavish interiors, and Windsor’s Capitol Theatre is no exception. While the exterior of the theatre is relatively understated, the interiors are garnished with many embellishments belonging to the Adamesque style (or Adam style). First popularized by the Adam brothers in the UK, the style was inspired by the ruins of Ancient Rome and the frescoes and wall decorations of the then recently unearthed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Characterized by the liberal use of classical motifs such as swags and flutings—the former, reliefs that resemble ribbons and flowers, and the latter, sets of parallel grooves that could help create the illusion of columns on a wall—these elements were used by Lamb to transport patrons into a fantastical environment that would attract moviegoers and make average citizens feel like royalty. Movie-going was a relatively novel activity and the spaces that housed the coveted projectors exuded a sense of grandeur.
Left: View of the lobby and concession, with Adamesque decorative features such as elaborately decorated cornices and swags. Right: Concourse of the Theatre showing ornamental columns along the wall, a key element of Adamesque theatres. Photo from Ontario Archives courtesy of Museum Windsor
Rising from the ashes
The Loew’s Windsor would be renamed the Capitol Theatre in 1922, enjoying a great period of success in its early years. Similar to many of the palaces of the early 1900s, its single-floor playhouse was eventually divided into three separate smaller theatres in 1975 after being acquired by Famous Players — television had become a worthy competitor to the silver screen. This was not enough to change the course for the ailing venue, however, and the Capitol fell into disrepair, narrowly avoiding demolition in the late 1980s. After being rescued by Windsor’s arts community and undergoing significant renovations in 1995, the theatre, unfortunately, fell on hard times once again and the organization that owned the building filed for bankruptcy in 2007. The City of Windsor stepped in to acquire the venue after adding the property to its list of heritage buildings in 2008.
In 2012, The Capitol would once again become a beacon of sounds and sights, becoming the permanent home of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra, as well as hosting the Windsor International Film Festival, among other cultural events.
Interior of the Pentastar Theatre, the largest venue at the Capitol. Photo courtesy of the Windsor Symphony Orchestra
The OAA would like to thank Museum Windsor and the Windsor Symphony Orchestra for their contributions to making this article possible.
This post forms part of our World Architecture Day Queen’s Park Picks 2020 series in which we asked Ontario’s Members of Provincial Parliament to nominate a prominent building, past or present, in their riding for a chance to learn more about it. Check out the rest of the series to learn more about great buildings across the province!