National Theater


National 1912
The National after opening.
Courtesy: State Historic Preservation Office


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 Night
The 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.

Copyright 1999 - 2004, David Kohrman
Last updated on April 29, 2004