Palaces on Main Street: Thomas W. Lamb, Rapp & Rapp, John Eberson, and the Development of the American Movie Palace

Fox, Jason Tippeconnic, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Wilson, Richard, Department of Architectural History, University of Virginia

This dissertation is a thematic examination of the movie palace focusing on the three leading firms specializing in the type’s design, those founded by Thomas W. Lamb, C.W. and George Rapp, and John Eberson. Movie palaces are commonly held as quintessentially American buildings, “democratic institutions” developed to attract the middle class by providing a respectable site for the interaction of audiences of differing social-economic classes. This study reaches beyond this well-recognized role; reevaluating the type’s evolution and studying overlooked aspects. First, it provides a much-needed comprehensive survey of the Lamb, Rapp, and Eberson firms, examining aspects of their backgrounds that impacted movie palace development. Second, it reveals the movie palace’s emergence and subsequent evolution as a continual process of one-upmanship among a handful of competing architectural firms. Lamb, the Rapps, and Eberson led this process, successively producing the major design innovations that fueled the type’s development, which were adopted and further adapted by other movie palace architects. Third, it establishes the type’s role as a tastemaker, exposing and educating moviegoers about historical and modernist varieties of art, architecture, and furnishings. This influence was most notable in relation to the domestic interior, where the type was marketed as a vehicle by domestic reformers to promote better taste and to Americanize its working-class, ethnic, and immigrant audiences. Finally, it examines the type’s widespread transmission overseas as a notable episode within the narrative of the internationalization of American architecture. The Lamb, Rapp, and Eberson offices were at the center of this process, which encompassed both their own foreign commissions and the influence that their work in the United States yielded over their counterparts abroad. Throughout, the dissertation challenges a tendency to examine movie palaces in isolation by contextualizing them as products of the fast-evolving motion picture industry with its constantly evolving stylistic, functional, and technological requirements, and as a response to local conditions. This approach not only illuminates the contributions of the leading movie palace designers but also better integrates the type into the narrative of 20th century architectural history.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
movie palace, motion picture theater
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