John Eberson's Deco Dreams
The Penn Theatre (1935) at 650 Pennsylvania Avenue SE was the first of John Eberson's eight Washington theatres. Today its facade survives as the entrance to a deco-themed office and retail building.
Like any good actor, John Eberson, America's greatest cinema architect, never let himself be typecast.

Eberson emigrated from Austro-Hungary with an engineering degree about 1900 and soon began to design "opera houses" for a promoter who built small town theaters. After a few years, Eberson opened his own architectural firm in Hamilton, Ohio and then migrated to Chicago in 1910. Although biographies state that he began designing big city theaters almost immediately, his career actually entered film noir.

In 1906 the "Julian Syndicate" from Cincinnati and nearby Hamilton had acquired an exclusive, lucrative, and politically controversial contract to process Chicago's garbage. However, the syndicate's Chicago Reduction Company Plant had numerous operating difficulties, culminating in a naptha explosion that killed seven workers in 1908.

John Eberson (1874-1954), once the "Valentino of cinema design", ended his career as its Fred Astaire.
Eberson apparently had developed a professional relationship with W.A. Julian, a Cinncinnati shoe manufacturer, banker, and political powerhouse. He became manager of the rebuilt plant soon after arriving in Chicago. His name soon became prominently featured in the Chicago Tribune's front page accusations against the company, which included giving stock to aldermen in exchange for favored treatment, playing dirty tricks on political opponents, and holding the health of the populace hostage while the city negotiated to buy the plant in 1914.

In 1920, the Tribune accused Eberson of having a sweetheart deal for the purchase of refined grease from the municipally-owned reduction plant. Although investigated, Eberson was never charged with a crime. However, he thereafter concentrated on his thriving architectural practice.

The theaters Eberson designed during the nineteen-teens were in the conventional style of the era. However, his Wichita Orpheum and Houston Majestic of 1922-1923 started a revolution as the first "atmospheric theatres". "Atmospheric theaters" were in many ways the first act of the show. They sought to pull the audience from the quotidian to a suspension of disbelief and state of impressionability. On the exterior, they resembled fantastic castles or Moorish palaces. Their interiors often suggested outdoor settlings such as gardens or grottoes.

While many theaters of the day were ornate, Eberson's atmospheric theatres expressed a romantic storyline and evoked sensations from all five senses. As he wrote of a major Chicago project:

I am working on a French interpretation of an atmospheric theater--the Garden of the Tuileries. We picture a Louis sending a message through the Land calling for painters, sculptors, gardeners, artisans of all kinds. And he gives the command to transform the spacious lawns lying in front of his palace into a festive ground, as he is going to entertain his grandees and dames at a glorious magic night feast. Surprises, illuminated fountains, music niches, lovers' lanes--a marvelous setting for a fantastic artful dance, the frills of the satin-and-silk-gowned nobles, the coquettish silk and ruffle-covered damsels, the air laden with jasmine.

Little wonder that Eberson's work in the 1920s earned him the title "Valentino of theatre design".

In 1925, the same Chicago Tribune that had once pilloried the Chicago Reduction Company noted that Eberson had projects underway in fourteen states. In 1929, Eberson moved what was now a national practice from Chicago to New York and made his son Drew his partner. But, after the stock market crash a few months later, the bottom quickly dropped out of the market for theaters.

Although the 1930s are today symbolized by their gaudy film productions, weekly cinema attendance fell by one-third from 1930 to 1932 . In 1932 studios and exhibitors lost over $85,000,000 and in 1933 one-third of the nation's theaters closed. During these years, Eberson struggled to develop an art deco style that depended more upon stylized streamlines and patterned color schemes than plaster ramparts and faux marble statuary. In 1934, he declared personal bankruptcy, while his son and partner Drew departed architecture for a stint as a Hollywood director.

By the time that the building climate improved in late 1935-1936, Eberson had fully metamorphized into the Fred Astaire of theatre design. His new "Classical Moderne" style incorporated such art deco elements as streamlining, rounded corners, and sweeping marquees. His designs became "cool, restrained, and practically unadorned", with "speed stripes" and hard edges that led the eye to follow their lines. Instead of ceilings with projected clouds, his interiors featured sumptuous use of patterned color, with a bold geometrically patterned screen curtain as the individual hallmark of each theatre.

Washingtonians had had to travel to Baltimore or Richmond to sit in an Eberson atmospheric theatre. However more than fourteen of his art deco era theatres were built in the Washington area. The first of Eberson's eight DC theatres was the Penn in 1935 and the last the Atlantic, designed with his son in 1945.



The Sheridan (1937), right

The Highland (1940), left



The Atlantic (1945), left

DC's "Lost Ebersons", right


The history of moviegoing in Washington begins and ends with Robert K. Headley's Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, DC.

Click here to preview and purchase this book