INFORMATION FROM A DOCUMENT PREPARED BY DR. BARRY HENRY REGARDING THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE NEW ORLEANS SAENGER THEATRE.
DESCRIBE THE PRESENT AND ORIGINAL (IF KNOWN) PHYSICAL APPEARANCE
The Saenger Theatre is an impressive example of a 1920's movie palace. The reinforced concrete structure rises to a height of 4 stories and has brick faccia. It occupies the rear half of a city block bounded by Canal Street, Rampart Street, Basin Street and Iberville Street. (Iberville Street is at the rear of the building.) When the Saenger was built, Saenger Theatres, Inc. was unable to gain control of the entire block. So the theatre was constructed at the rear of the block and access from the front (Canal Street) and the sides (Rampart and Basin Streets) was provided by a system of grand hallways. Actually there are three such two story hallways which emirate from the theatre. One proceeds forward, between a pair of 4 story brick commercial buildings, to a grand entrance on Canal Street (the main entrance). The other two hallways proceed sideways to lesser entrances on Rampart and Basin Streets. Taken together, the hallways form a "T" shaped configuration with the top of the "T" pressing against the theatre proper.
The theatre proper and the aforementioned three hallways are the subject of this nomination. The commercial buildings which share the block with the theatre are not part of the nomination.
The theatre itself is massive with a wide balcony at the rear and a 52 foot by 35 foot stage with a proscenium height of 30 feet. There is also an electrical operated worm gear lifting orchestra pit which will hold 40 musicians. All of the stage machinery and lighting equipment is in good condition.
The stage area also contains a Robert Morgan theatre organ which lifts. It
cost the Saenger Amusement Co. over $100,000 at the time of its installation.
With over 2000 pipes and 7 percussion instruments, the organ is in excellent
condition and is still used for concerts.
Originally the auditorium contained 3400 seats, however, some were taken out in a 1964 renovation which will be described later.
The interior style of the main theatre space is "atmospheric." This theatre style was invented by architect John Eberson. The auditorium at the Saenger was termed "a magnificent amphitheatre under a glorious moonlit sky an Italian garden, a Persian court where friendly stars twinkled and wisps of cloud drifted".
Actually this open court yard effect is achieved by articulating the theatre walls and the proscenium as a series of false building facades and arcades, set around a quadrangle. The facade elements are varied in height, finished with proper roof lines, and capped with the beginnings of Spanish red tile roofs. Much of this "facade" work is done in marble. This courtyard configuration is surmounted by a vast curved ceiling on which the appearance of sky and clouds is achieved through painterly illusion. The ceiling is inset with point lights to give the effect of stars. Day, night, or sunrise effects can be produced with the use of the lighting equipment.
The stage is flanked by an unusually wide pair of colossal pilasters of the composite order. The proscenium is surmounted by a wide paneled entablature with gilt shallow relief carving, medallions, a large central cartouche with cherubs, and a heavy corbel table with false roof. Flanking the stage area, on the side walls, is a pair of false building fronts which superficially resemble Baroque church facades. Both are based on the triumphal arch motif, both have central recessed niche areas with statuary, and both have large plaster urns at the parapet level. Although they were termed "Florentine Renaissance" at the time of the theatre's construction, each one is in fact an accumulation of Baroque, Mannerist, Renaissance and Rococo, details liberally garnished with gilt relief work, statuary and metal work.
Completing the court yard is a pair of two story arcades with Corinthian columns, medallions in the spandrels, and balustrade statuary. The arcades extend beyond the balcony to the rear of the theatre space. They provide a transition space to the various recessed areas off the main theatre.
The design also provides for generous smoking rooms as well as a second floor art salon which was removed in 1964.
The aforementioned grand access hallways are divided into bays by shallow and slender panels formed of marble. Display cases occupy the ground floor bays and on the second floor the bays are occupied by Mannerist aedicule motifs formed of coins, many of which have inset mirrors.
At one time the main hall, which leads from the theatre to the main entrance on Canal Street, had four massive crystal chandeliers hanging from the painted beam ceiling. These chandeliers were acquired from the Chateau Pierrefonds D'Olse by the Saenger Company when the theatre was built. Today only one of the four remains.
The exterior of the theatre proper has no ornamental treatment except for the
Rampart Street side which is sparingly garnished in classical details. Each
entrance portal, however, is articulated as a separate facade from the surrounding
building mass. The most opulent of these is the Canal Street entrance with its
second story limestone grand niche which has flanking Corinthian columns and
internal coffering. Less elaborate, the Rampart Street entrance has a limestone
faccia with an arch motif and the three theatrical muses carved in the upper
portion. The Basin Street entrance is noted only by a few changes in the brick
work, but it is distinct from its
In 1964 the following changes were made. A second theatre was installed in the balcony which necessitated the removal of the art salon, the installation of escalators, and the construction of a light wall at the balcony level to separate the new theatre from the old theatre space. Some of the seats were also removed from the balcony and some of the theatre's art collection, including three of the main chandeliers were sold. However, the pieces sold were mainly reproductions and their disappearance does not leave a noticeable void. Inasmuch as most of the art objects were reproductions, the art salon was not a major source of significance for the theatre, and it disappearance does not impair the significance of the theatre greatly.
Finally, the aforementioned light wall is not a major intrusion upon the main theatre space. This is because the wall is set back upon the upstairs balcony. The theatre users' orientation is to the front, or the side perhaps, but rarely is it to the rear. Also because the wall is recessed back from the front of the balcony, it is hardly less noticeable. In any case the wall could be easily removed.
On November 25, 1977 the Saenger Theatre was entered into the National Register. At that time the application addressed only the theatre space itself and the grand entrance corridors which lead to it. It left out the two other buildings on the block, one of which (1101 11 Canal Street) is the subject of this addendum.*
When the Saenger was built (1927), Saenger Theatres Inc. did not have control of the entire city block (see map). There were two buildings on the site already. Hence the theatre ultimately had to be built at the rear of the block and access from the front (Canal Street) and the sides (Rampart and Basin Streets) was provided by a system of grand corridors. There are three corridors emanating from the theatre lobby. The main one proceeds forward between the two commercial buildings to a grand, albeit narrow, triumphal arch entrance on Canal Street. The two other hallways proceed sideways to lesser entrances on Rampart and Basin Streets.
The hallways are divided into bays by shallow slender panels formed of marble. Display cases occupy the ground floor bays, and on the second floor the bays are occupied by Renaissance aedicule motifs formed of quoins, many of which have inset mirrors. At one time the main hall had four massive crystal chandeliers hanging from the painted beam ceiling. These chandeliers were acquired from the Chateau Pierrefonds D'Olse by the Saenger Company when the theatre was built. Today only one of the four remains.
1101 11 Canal was built in 1923 four years before the Saenger was completed. It is a four story brick neo classical structure with a heavy frieze and a modillion cornice. Most of the windows are set in groups of two or three. The shopfront level was originally divided into bays by Roman Doric pilasters. About twenty percent of this articulated shopfront remains. The interior of the building is devoid of significant historic features.
The fact that 1101 11 Canal Street and its companion building support and augment the basically classical composition of the Saenger is not an accident. In 1921 developers acquired control of the lots and made arrangements for the construction of the present commercial buildings. They also entered into an agreement with Saenger Theatres Inc. to permit entrances to the theatre to be built in the form of passages between the two buildings. So, despite the differences in dates, the theatre, 1101-11 Canal and 1113 17 Canal were conceived of as a whole before any of them were built.
Assessment of Integrity:
The historic interiors of the building have largely disappeared, light wells have been enclosed, and there have been some significant shopfront level modifications. Despite these, the brick mass and the classical style of the building remains dominant. It still fulfills its historic role as an architectural "bookend" for the slender Saenger entrance.
*The other building (1113 17 Canal) is also involved in the addendum process. However, because both of its owners filed notarized letters of objection, it is being submitted separately for inclusion on the list of properties eligible for the Register but not actually listed (These were the instructions given us by our reviewer.)
In the original nomination both buildings were excluded from the nominated area because it was a very unusual case with no precedent whatsoever. Hence the staff drew a conservative set of boundaries and the Saenger was duly listed on the Register. In early 1984 an Economic Recovery Tax Act renovation project was suggested for 1101 11 Canal Street, and consequently the staff was asked to investigate whether it and 1113 17 should be included in the Saenger listing. The National Register Review Unit in Washington, D. C was contacted for a technical ruling and the consensus was that they should. (See Item 8 for technical explanation.)
SPECIFIC DATES 1927
BUILDER/ARCHITECT Emile Weil
STATEMENT OF SIGNIFICANCE
The Saenger Theatre is a 1920's movie palace of the first rank, a fact which is demonstrated by its large size with almost 3400 seats.
Its first rank status is shown by the extensive use of marble, statuary, and carving, notably in the niches and above the false facades. Its status is also shown by the extensive use of free standing columns, colossal pilasters, triumphal arch motifs, grand arcades, and elaborately garnished ancillary areas off the main theatre space. It is significant that these impressive architectural elements were used to articulate the interior rather than the usual superficial wall appliqué of lesser theatres.
The architect for the Saenger Theatre was Emile Weil, a practitioner of prominence in New Orleans in the early 20th century. His other commissions include the Whitney Bank, the Canal Bank, Jerusalem Temple and the original Tulane University Stadium.
In addition, the Saenger is a theatre of the "atmospheric" type, a variety of theatre which created the illusion of night and day and other outdoor effects through the use of lighting and interior decoration. Atmospheric theatres, which were always in the minority, are rapidly disappearing.
Since its construction the Saenger has been the most important theatre in New Orleans. With the City's largest auditorium, the Saenger was usually the place where major touring shows and films opened when they came to the area.
In addition, by the late 1920's Saenger Theatres, Inc. had gained control of 320 theatres in eleven Southern states and in the Caribbean. Of these the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans was the largest and most elaborately built. It was for example the only Saenger owned theatre with a lifting orchestra pit.
The New Orleans Times Picayune and the New Orleans Item ran Saenger Sections on the day the theatre opened on February 4, 1927. "Their Dream Theatre Comes True" was the caption over the pictures of the four men who were the founders and top executives of the company. They were Julian H. Saenger, President; A. D. Saenger, Vice President; E. V. Richards, Vice President and General Manager; and L. M. Ash, Treasurer. The chain of Saenger Theatres began in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1911 when Julian and A. D. Saenger built the Saenger Theatre at 620 Milan Street adjacent to the Saenger Drug Store which the brothers had operated for several years on the corner of Louisiana Avenue and Milan Street. For one year they booked vaudeville. Then Julian Saenger, seeing the future of the motion picture industry, discontinued vaudeville and installed projectors. This theatre is still in operation under the name The Capri.
E. V. Richards was the manager of the first Saenger Theatre. In 1912, the Saenger Amusement Company was formed. That name was retained until 1927 when it was changed to Saenger Theatres, Inc.
The first expansion policy was adopted when motion picture houses were opened in Texarkana, Monroe and Alexandria. The Saenger Amusement Company moved its offices to New Orleans when it bought out the Fichtenberg interests and built the Strand Theatre which opened on July 4, 1917.
Saenger Theatres, Inc. at the time it was sold to Paramount in 1929 for a sum in excess of ten million dollars comprised 320 theatres in eleven southern states, and also in Cuba, Jamaica, Panama and Puerto Rico.
Specific dates 1923
Statement of Significance (in one paragraph)
1101 11 Canal Street is an essential component of the Saenger Theatre National Register site because it (along with 1113 17 Canal) is related to the theatre's architectural development and style, as follows:
(1) As mentioned in Item 7, the two commercial buildings and the theatre were conceived as a whole before any of them were built. The architectural style of the grouping is more or less classical, and although the theatre entrance is more ornate, the buildings are so complementary that the Canal Street elevation can almost he read as a single facade.
(2) 1101 11 and 1113 17 Canal Street gave the Saenger one of its most distinctive and architecturally significant features i,e,, its grand approach corridors. These are very unusual in theatre architecture and the ones at the Saenger are widely recognized as one of the building's most distinguishing aspects. Yet they would never have been built were it not for the other buildings on the block. In addition, the grand hallways and the two commercial buildings are structurally interlinked. Finally, it would probably be possible to demolish the two commercial buildings and leave the hallways standing, But if this were done, the standing hallway configuration would make no sense architecturally.
MAJOR BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCES
The Times Picayune, February 5, 1927, pg. 1, 3 Saenger Section.
The New Orleans Item, February 4, 1927, Saenger Section.
History of Shreveport and Shreveport Buildings by Miss Lilla McLure and Mr. Ed. Howe, 1937, pp. 174, 175, 177, 271.
The Best Remaining Seats, Ben M. Hall, 1961.
ADDENDUM MAJOR BIBLIOGRAPHICAL REFERENCES
Research report submitted by applicant; researched by Hilary Irvin. Based upon
conducted in primary sources such as conveyance records, city directories, archival collections in New Orleans, etc. Copy of report in Saenger Addendum Register file, LA State Historic Preservation Office.