Vanished Winchester: The Colonial Theatre

While the front facade of the Taylor Hotel was rehabilitated and now appears much as it did one hundred years ago, a sizeable area in the middle of the lot is now home to the Taylor Pavilion. The next time you visit this space downtown, take a moment to think on the now vanished part of this building and its opulent past.

Sanborn map of 1885, showing the wings of the Taylor Hotel.

Originally the “missing middle” was part of the hotel, with two wings connected by a hyphen with a courtyard between them. After the Civil War, the Taylor fell somewhat from its resplendent past, eventually being closed and converted to a McCrory’s around 1921. What could have been quite a dramatic fall from grace instead allowed for a rehabilitation of the upper floors, re-imagining the space into a theater.

The Colonial Theatre, numbered 129 N. Loudoun St., was built not only for motion picture screening, but also to accommodate plays, musical acts, talent shows, and as a meeting place for organizations and speakers.

This adaptive reuse took some time as expected, but the work was completed in December of 1923, with the grand opening being held on Christmas Day. A. R. Roberts of New York was the supervising engineer. All of the electrical work and supplies were provided by the Butler Electric Company, while the furniture, rugs, and many interior decorations were furnished by P. C. Neidemeyer & Company.

Charles W. Boyer was the manager and lessee of the theater; Claire Dotterer was the resident manager, and Madelyn Hall was named musical director. Miss Dotterer subsequently hired three “usherettes” to assist patrons with finding their seats and providing programs.

The Sanborn map of 1921 shows the plans for the theater and stage scenery (fly tower).

Some of the innovations also included the attention to safety of the patrons. The opening description of the building stated, “Every precaution possible has been adopted to make the Colonial absolutely safe both from fire and panic.” The theater had “eleven exits, each of which is clearly defined in large glowing red letters” so that the “entire theatre could be emptied within five minutes.” Modern fire escapes with electrical lights were installed, fire hoses and chemical extinguishers were on hand, and the stage and the dressing rooms were equipped with an automatic sprinkler system.

We are very fortunate that a full description of the interior at opening was documented in the Daily Independent on December 24, 1923. We will be pulling heavily from this account to describe the Colonial Theatre. Be sure to click the links to visit the Stewart Bell Archives images of the associated descriptions!

“The main entrance of the New Colonial is situated on Main street, immediately north of the entrance to the J. G. McCrory Five and Ten-Cent Stores. A ticket booth is in front of the entrance, on the street, and in the foyer to the right there is a box office for use when road shows are presented.”

“The foyer and lobby and stairway of the New Colonial are imposing in appearance and beautifully decorated and lighted. The side walls and panels have been done in pink and ivory, the wainscoting and panel edges and columns in buff, while the stairway railings are of mahogany and the wooden panelling and interior woodwork is finished in mahogany.

“At the right of the stairway there is a large room which is to be used as a ladies’ lounge and which faces the main entrance on the right. Here a reading room for tired shoppers, whether they be patrons of the theatre or not, has been provided. Upholstered wicker furniture has been installed and the current magazines and newspapers and writing material will always be at the disposal of the public. A restful and comfortable atmosphere pervades the ladies’ lounge. The floor is covered with a velvet rug of old gold and rose.

“Up and down both sides of a wide stairway, which is divided by a mahogany railing, there is rubber matting, and the same material has also been placed on the landing floor above. At the left of the landing are the ladies’ and men’s retiring rooms and the men’s smoking room, while the balcony of the theatre is reached by entrances at both right and left of the landing.”

“Including the balcony and six boxes, it has a seating capacity of one thousand. There is a wide aisle down the middle of the theatre, reaching from the entrance doors to the orchestra pit, with aisles on either side of the immense room.

Detail of the theater ornamentation, photographed by Alan Lehman for the Northern Virginia Daily, March 8, 1995

“The balcony upon which the picture machine is placed extends some distance from the main doors towards the stage. The distance between the picture booth on the balcony and the screen is 110 feet, and the distance from the back of the stage to the orchestra wall is 140 feet, while the theatre itself is 50 feet in width.

“The ceiling is white, decorated in gold and ivory, and the walls are finished in buff and ivory and polychrome.”

“The stage itself is unusually large for a moving picture theatre in a city the size of Winchester, and measures 21 feet, 11 inches from one end of the footlights to the other, and 19 1-2 feet, 12 inches from the footlights to the top of the proscenium arch. When road shows are presented, forty-two sets of lines have been installed to move the scenery and equipment, which is to be of the most modern type.

“The lighting system, both for the stage and for the theatre, is controlled from an electrician’s box which is located back of the curtain, on the left, 12 feet above the stage. The lighting control consists of a dead front switchboard and all interior theatre lighting is both indirect and direct. All the orchestra lights are controlled through dimmers, and this method also prevails with the stage equipment. Throughout the theatre itself both the direct and indirect systems of lighting are used, the suspended ceiling lights being softened by amber shades and the side lights with amber parchment shades.”

The Colonial also had a summer lighting and decor change. In the Daily Independent, 11 June 1924 the writer noted: “The stage has been completely redecorated, the heavy, winter velvet draperies have been replaced by light, cool, airy ones of silk and silver tone cloth. The house lighting has been changed to a delightful blue replacing the amber lights, while on the stage there is absolutely no bright light. The white lights have all been replaced by magenta and blue lights.”

Although we are not completely sure, it appears Charles Boyer retired from operating theaters in 1930.[1] Another story noted in 1926 Marshall Baker took over operation of the Colonial, implying Boyer gave up his Winchester enterprise before his Hagerstown theater. Warner Bros. purchased the theater in 1930 and appear to have been the last owners. The Colonial celebrated a change in showing schedule and admission prices to bring them in line with Warner Bros. policy on December 7, 1931 with a “gala reopening.”

Information on the theatre through its 1930s era is sparse. It is commonly repeated the theatre closed in 1939, which appears to be when the McCrory’s store was altered. A longtime McCrory employee, Betty Kline, relayed the 1939 date to the Winchester Star during an interview on the theater’s history July 12, 1986. It seems likely the theater seating was removed around 1939 to create a store room for McCrory’s, but according to Kline’s memory, the stage lights were still in place when she started in 1941.

Image of the Colonial Theatre space in use as McCrory’s storeroom. Photo by Alan Lehman, Northern Virginia Daily, March 8, 1995.

Dreams of restoring the theater to specialty film showings or conversion to IMAX were floated in the 1990s and 2000s with other downtown renovations. Unfortunately, the long-deferred dream was not to be. After close to a week of heavy rainfall in October 2007, the neglected roof drainage system over the theater collapsed under the weight of the water.

Taylor Hotel Collapse
The fly tower and Colonial Theatre space shortly after collapse, October 2007. Photo by Frank Wright.
Taylor Hotel Roof Collapse
After debris was cleared away, the remnants of the balcony seating area were visible.

Salvaging the theatre was now impossible. In its stead, the removed central portion is now known as the Taylor Pavilion. Sections of the old limestone footers and foundation walls help make a tiered seating area. A small concrete stage area was installed as a nod to the space’s history. PHW was fortunate enough to host our 50th anniversary party there as the first major event in September 2014. The pavilion and event space is a fitting way to honor this once grand theater of Winchester’s past. The next time you are downtown, stop by the pavilion and stand in the pocket park. You just might be able to envision the glittering beauty and pageantry that graced the screen and stage here one hundred years ago.

PHW's 50th Anniversary Party
PHW members finish off the 50th Anniversary celebration under the stars at the Taylor Pavilion, September 2014.

Certain articles referenced in the creation of this blog post are not freely available online for citation but are held in the collection of the PHW Architectural Inventory.

Vanished Winchester: Noonan’s Livery (and Related Businesses)

Noonan’s Livery is one of the vanished Winchester locations that has to date not been well-documented in secondary source materials. We hope to rectify this with our first installation in the “Vanished Winchester” blog series.

According to Wikipedia, “[t]he livery stable was a necessary institution of every American town, but its role has been generally overlooked by historians. … With the advent of the automobile after 1910, the livery stables quietly disappeared.” [1] American livery stables generally offered horses and wagons for hire, as well as offering short term boarding for privately-owned horses. As such they were generally located near a hotel to provide services to travelers. Many liveries also offered feed for sale and other horse-related services.

Noonan’s Livery hits most of these points (with one notable exception which we will touch on toward the end of our investigation). There was almost always a livery stable of some flavor attached or affiliated with the Taylor Hotel from the time of Bushrod Taylor’s ownership, and it is likely a stable was also part of the amenities for the earlier McGuire’s ordinary at the same location. A livery near the Taylor Hotel seems to have been run in part or in full by a Noonan family member beginning around 1865. The earliest mention we have found corroborating this is a notice to return a strayed mare to the Taylor Hotel stables, under the care of Potter & Noonan, in 1867. [2] In 1868, the stables were operated by Noonan & Quinn [3], and finally by 1871 the business was solely operated by B. Noonan, who bought out his partner’s share and continued the business in the same location. [4]

Sanborn map of 1885; Noonan’s Livery is the livery building numbered 112 near the center of the detail. The Taylor Hotel is located off-picture, above the warehouses lining Indian Alley.

Most early information is limited to the usual short advertising blurbs to rent coaches, board horses, and special rates for travelers staying at the Taylor Hotel. Although an exact date has not been located yet, by 1891 Mr. Noonan had passed away and the business was now being operated by his wife, still in the same location behind the Taylor Hotel. [5]

A brief note in the Daily Item newspaper, July 18, 1896, indicates the stable was recently whitewashed. [6] Although no signage is visible on the building, we believe this image showing a white stable behind 104 N. Braddock St. is the Taylor Hotel stable and Noonan Livery.

Sanborn map of 1897 shows Noonan’s Livery has moved to the opposite side of Amherst Street, still near the Taylor Hotel.

By 1897, however, the Noonan Livery had relocated across the street and expanded their services (the original stable now being operated by Joseph Wright, Jr.). The numerous smaller sheds and buildings were torn down and a larger stable, blacksmith, and a veterinary practice now occupy the entire south side of Amherst between Braddock and Indian Alley. It is likely around this time Henry and/or J. Mack Noonan assumed the family business from their mother.

For most livery operators, this was a time of decline as automobiles replaced the horse as the standard of over land transportation and their services were no longer required. One would expect to see a horse-based business phased out by the late 1910s or early 1920s. Indeed, that happened, but the Noonan family transferred their skills to an “auto livery.” In 1916, note is made that J. Mack Noonan relocated from the south side of Amherst back to the “old Taylor Hotel stables, which have undergone extensive improvements. Mr. Noonan also has considerable space for his automobile trade.” [7]

Earlier in 1916, J. Mack Noonan’s brother Henry Noonan was killed in an automobile accident. [8] Instead of turning against automobiles, he seems to have embraced their life-saving potential by partnering with Gibson Baker and replacing the horse-drawn ambulance for Winchester Memorial Hospital with a motorized vehicle costing $3,000 (about $50,140 today) in 1921. [9] Numerous mentions are found of him acting as ambulance driver and making impressive times to injured people in newspaper accounts through the 1920s.

Sanborn 1927, showing the old Taylor Hotel stables as an auto livery with repair services, and a new two story garage on the south side of Amherst, erected in 1919. This building was known as the Firestone Building by the late 1960s.

He was involved with many civic events in this era as well, offering essentially taxi services and organizing carpools to events like Apple Blossom. He also appeared to have taken up managing a bus line, much like the old days of Bushrod Taylor’s stagecoach lines. [10]

J. Mack Noonan passed away in 1930, but his taxi business continued to be operated by his wife after his death, similar to how his own mother operated the original livery. [11] Around 1935, it seems the old wooden Taylor Hotel stables were replaced with a new brick structure at approximately the same location, known as the Valley Service Station, later Valley Distributors. [12] When she finally closed Noonan’s Taxi Service for the last time, September 18, 1952, the newspaper stated it was one of the oldest businesses in Winchester. [13] Certainly that was an accomplishment for what could have been an obsolete business forty years earlier.

Both sites of Noonan’s Livery (Valley Distributors and the Firestone Building) were purchased by Winchester Parking Authority for the Braddock Street Auto Park in the late 1960s. In the February 15, 1966 newspaper article, the Valley Distributors building was considered for a partial demolition and adaptive reuse to a civic lounge. According to the article, a 36′ section of the building fronting Amherst would be retained for “public restrooms, waiting lounge, public lockers, soft drink dispensers and serve as a downtown bus stop.” An alternate idea could have seen the space used as a Chamber of Commerce office. The Firestone Building on the south side of Amherst was slated for complete demolition. The desire was to consolidate the two parcels and incorporate it into one complex (as we know now did happen) and to provide a covered walkway for pedestrians to McCrory’s in the old Taylor Hotel (which did not exactly happen.)

The Braddock Street Auto Park was constructed in 1972, according to a plaque mounted on the building. While all physical traces of the livery businesses that once operated here are gone, it is an interesting footnote that the site continues to offer short and long term boarding solutions to our modern day transportation needs.

The Braddock Street Auto Park, 30 N. Braddock St., digitized from a slide dated 1978.

Introduction to Vanished Winchester 2.0

One of our internal long term goals is to update our information on “Vanished Winchester,” one of our popular programs that originated with an exhibit held in the Kurtz Cultural Center in 1994. The display was initially open to the public October 1-November 11 and featured photographs of buildings either demolished or severely altered, with many of the photographs originating from the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives. Versions of this program have been hosted in the decades since and remain highly engaging.

Compiling demolished sites for the “Vanished Winchester” program dates back to at least early 1990. Stewart Bell, Jr. provided his list of significant buildings lost before the formation of PHW to us along with a handwritten note to Pat Zontine, PHW’s President at the time, and Anna Thomson, then Executive Director:

Dear Pat and Anna –
Here is my list of houses lost (mostly before the Conrad House controversy) that I personally remember. Each one I thought of as having some unique interest – either architectural or historical.
Of course it isn’t documented and should be used publicly.
I am pleased to share this list with you, because it supports my belief that my friends in P.H.W. should date this major victory (almost no significant buildings lost since Conrad House) from the Conrad controversy.
Maj. Whitehorne[?] observed in the Geo. Washington [history?] that most great military commanders had experienced significant defeat before achieving fame and success.
I think only Rose Hill, Willow Lawn, Miss Annie Reese’s house, and Mrs. Barton’s house are [lost?] since the Conrad House.

-Stewart Bell, Jr.

In the spring of 1994, John G. Lewis and Virginia Miller appear to have further expanded the initial list provided by Stewart Bell, Jr. It appears they used a combination of page by page marking photographs of demolished building in Images of the Past, combined with their knowledge of downtown Winchester from their work on the 1976 architectural survey. After two to three iterations of the list, 87 demolished or significantly altered buildings were identified, with nine additional sites posited to have possible documentation or to be marked for further investigation. About 60 photographs made it into the finished exhibit.

Unfortunately, only three of the exhibit panels seemed to have been photographed (“Most Endangered Buildings,” “Historic District,” and “Changed Vistas,”) and the text used for the image captions seems largely missing or to be very early draft copies. If you happen to have any more views of the exhibit or planning materials, we would be interested in obtaining more documents to flesh out the historic files.

We hope to make keep expanding our knowledge of some of these lost sites in a future series of blog posts. While we’re sure to cover some of the famous lost buildings like the Winchester Inn, the Cannonball House, and the Chanticleer Inn, we hope to also bring more recognition to other properties that have largely been forgotten or were lost too recently to have been covered in past programs. As the exhibit text stated in 1994, “We hope you find this exhibit both interesting and educational. We also hope that as you finish your [virtual] tour, you will agree that it is important that we all continue to work to safeguard our architectural heritage for future generations.”

Keep an eye out for the first featured building in a future post!