Who Is S. Charles Lee? | Bleader

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Who Is S. Charles Lee?

Posted By on 12.14.06 at 09:25 PM

Nothing could be more retro than the movie theaters of S. Charles Lee, though it's hard finding evidence, either standing or demolished, to prove that this Chicago-bred architect-designer ever practiced here at all. But he did, and his apprenticeship was formidable: with architectural giants Rapp & Rapp, prime purveyors of 20s movie palace baroque (is "churrigueresque" too strong a word?), whose area work includes the Chicago Theatre, the Riviera, the Uptown, the south-side Tivoli (now demolished) ... the first and last completed when Lee was at the firm. But Lee's own path was different, and after pulling up stakes and heading out to the coast (specifically LA), he developed, from the mid-20s on, a stripped-down, streamlined theater-design style—what's categorized today as deco moderne (or, in more extreme cases, "automat modular")—that reflected both changing aesthetics (since International Style was all the rage: white Corbusian surfaces and curvilinear turnings, etc) and the penny-pinching demands of Depression-era construction. 

Still the results were elegant, if ornamentally constrained (in a relative sense, of course), and surviving examples show it: the Alex, the Vine, the Bruin (all in or around LA, all still in operation), the Tower (ditto in Fresno)—though ultimately his masterpiece, by general assent, is the Academy Theatre in Inglewood (1938), designed specifically to host the Oscars but never used for that purpose (reportedly the first film to play there was Another Thin Man in '39; unfortunately the building's now a church). For an appreciative overview of Lee's career (which continued into the 50s, in a style I'd define, not without affection, as "Z-Frank carport moderne"), Maggie Valentine's print monograph The Show Starts on the Sidewalk is surely indispensable. As for undemolished movie-house deco in the Chicago area, the pickings are mighty slim: the Pickwick in Park Ridge, the Lake in Oak Park, the DesPlaines in its namesake burb, the York in Elmhurst, maybe the Patio out at Irving and Austin. . . . Any more you can think of? I sure can't. Everything else is gone.

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