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National after opening.
Courtesy: State Historic
While the theater district of the 1920's
would be centered around Grand Circus Park, during the
early decades of the 20th century Detroit's best theaters
were found along Monroe Street. This was the era of
vaudeville and early silent films. Motion pictures were
still a novelty and the grand movie palaces a thing
of the future. Today this district is gone. Only the
little National Theater remains to testify to its existance.
The National Theater was built in 1912 to a design
by Albert Kahn. Kahn designed numberous buildings throughout
Detroit. However, the National would be his only theater.
He covered its exterior entirely with terra-cotta pewabic
tiles in white and blue. The neo-baroque design was
dominated by a massive arched window, flanking towers
with gold domes, and two watchful eagles. This decoration
gave the theater an elaboratly ornate appearance in
the daylight. Yet, the best time to see it was at night.
Built into the facade were hundreds of lightbulbs. When
the sun set the theater became a true visual feast
National at night.
Courtesy: Manning Bros.
The interiors were equally impressive. The arrangement
was typical of the early movie houses. The lobby was
a narrow space covered entirely with tan pewabic tiles.
From here people passed into a tasteful auditorium containing
800 seats. Most of these were situated on the main floor.
The remainder were on a sizable balcony and accessed
with stairways in the side towers. The interior continued
the decorative treatment of the exterior with a feast
of plaster and colorful stencilwork.
The entertainment industry was in a period of rapid
change when the theater opened. Within five years the
first of the large movie houses on Grand Circus Park,
the Madison, opened. By the 1920's the National was
forced to change its vaudeville and burlesque fare to
include movies. However as the new movie theaters became
ever larger and more elaborate, the National and its
neighbors simply could not keep up. They were being
made obsolete by the new "movie palace" style.
Their situation was not helped by the general decline
of the area as the social center of the city shifted
northward. Thus National and the Monroe theater district
began a slow painful decline. One by one the early temples
of amusement closed their doors and were demolished.
The National continued to survive on burlesque and porn
for many years until it finally closed in the late 1970's.
The National has stood for twenty years in a state
of abandonment. It is currently in the hands of the
city which has repaired the roof. There has been recent
talk of its restoration for black theater. In anticipation
for its rebirth Preservation Wayne volunteers helped
clean up the interiors. However, talk of its renovation
has bounced around for a few years with no noticable
results. It can only be hoped that as the area rebounds
with the presence of Compuware, that the National does
get restored. Conservative estimates to restore the
theater range from $5 - $7 million. Considering the
breath-taking architecture offered by the National,
that is a bargin price.