Photo by Lee Brauer photography
Susan Reed, Commonwealth Architects' project manager for the Empire Theatre and Little Theatre renovation, discovered some curiosities while examining the original blueprints for the buildings at the Library of Virginia.
The Empire's first name was the Star Theatre. Other than the name, however, it stands as drawn.
The rendering of the Little, the neighboring "motion picture house," is not. As though to compensate for its jewel-box size and evoke being transported into a room of dreams, the drawn building sports four classical columns supporting an elaborate portico roof topped by faces linked by garlands. C.K. Howell's name is on the plan, but until now, the building was attributed to Charles K. Bryant, a Powhatan County native and prominent Richmond architect. "It's not really clear what happened," Reed says. "But after these drawings were made, either the budget or the client's preference changed."
The Little as built resembles Bryant's hand rather than Howell's. Bryant's architectural accomplishments include the one he was most proud of, the columned and pedimented downtown John Marshall High School (1909, demolished 1960), Richmond Hall at Union Theological Seminary and the City Auditorium (adapted as a Virginia Commonwealth University athletic center). These are handsome buildings that blend tradition with the modern Chicago school of architecture. Thus, the Little is Classical Revival adorned with Art Deco flourishes.
According to Bruce Miller, the Little exhibits the sole remaining original Art Deco marquee in the city proper. Part of the ongoing $1 million exterior renovation includes restoring both marquees. Miller says of the Little's, "It'll be one of those old-fashioned kinds that you have to replace the lettering by hand."