Zoe Theatre, Pittsfield Illinois

Date added: November 4, 2022 Categories: Illinois Theater Art Moderne

The City of Pittsfield is located near the geographic center of Pike County, Illinois, and lies approximately 70 miles west of Springfield and 80 miles northwest of St. Louis, Missouri. The city was established in 1833 expressly for the purpose of being the new county seat. The city was named after Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and was home to John Hay, Abraham Lincoln's personal secretary, ambassador to England under President William McKinley, later Secretary of State for Theodore Roosevelt, and creator of the Open Door Policy in China. As county seat, the town was one of the various places in central Illinois where Abraham Lincoln practiced law as part of the circuit court, working on 34 cases between 1839 and 1852. Aside from being a center of government activity, Pittsfield's prosperity was closely linked to the rich agricultural business of Pike County, which led to the development of the city's large central commercial district. The district, with an impressive collection of primarily nineteenth-century buildings, including the imposing Pike County Courthouse (1894-95).

The same year that the current courthouse was constructed saw completion of the K.P. Opera House at 120 South Madison Street. The opera house was converted to a movie house in the early 1900s, and was purchased in the 1920s by Clark Armentrout who refurbished the theatre by adding air conditioning and other amenities, and renamed it the Clark Theatre. The Clark Theatre entertained movie goers until 1950, when Armentrout renovated an existing auto parts store at 209 North Madison into a modern movie theatre, and named it Zoe after his granddaughter.

The first-run Zoe Theatre opened September 17, 1950, with a showing of "A Life of Her Own" starring Lana Turner and Ray Milland. The 351-seat theatre was touted as "very modern throughout [with] the latest and best equipment." Designed and supervised by Ted Dell, local designer and Armentrout's former manager of the Clark Theatre, the Zoe Theatre featured an attractive array of modern interior finishes: green Weldtex walls and ceiling in the lobby and foyer; wainscoting of striped mahogany in the lobby and faux brown leather Nu-Wood in the foyer and auditorium; cream and tan Nu-Wood paneling outlined in green and red trim, with decorative shapes and designs for the walls and ceiling of the auditorium; green mosaic tiles in the lobby and gold, green and red aisle carpeting; green metal seats with maroon upholstery; and shimmering golden fabric curtains of the proscenium arch. Armentrout also provided a small candy stand in the lobby and added a new feature for Pittsfield movie goers, a special cry room for babies was placed in the corner of the balcony, with a visual glass front to allow mothers viewing of the movies without disturbing the audience. The theatre was air-conditioned and was one of only three movie houses in the county to have that feature (all three operated by Armentrout). The exterior of the building was equally modern and sleek with full glass entrance doors, polished aluminum trim and box office, and a large gleaming stainless steel marquee and porcelain enamel sign, illuminated with bands of cascading neon (red and green) and chase incandescent bulbs, and manufactured by C. Bendsen Company from Decatur, Illinois, one of the leading marquee and neon sign manufacturers in the Midwest. Ironically, the feature that was to exemplify Zoe's modernity was not yet installed on the opening date, but a few weeks later a colorful, highly-polished and opaque glass was affixed over the entire main facade of the building. The material, known as structural glass, featured a symmetrical design of repetitive square motifs framing the upper story of the building and reinforcing the symmetrical design of the marquee, sign, and the facade, itself a near perfect square. To accomplish the smooth and modern aesthetic, Zoe's designer Ted Dell utilized both available brands of structural glass: ivory and beige panels are Carrara Structural Glass by Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, while the red bulkheads and small squares in relief are Vitrolite by Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company of Toledo, Ohio.

When completed in 1950, the building's design was sufficiently modern to be profiled among thirty-six other theatres in an annual review of theatre construction that appeared in the ninth edition of the Theatre Catalog. The Annual Merit Award, consisting of a large bronze plaque and symbolizing the theatre industry's only "Seal of Approval," was bestowed upon the winning American and international structures, whose selection was based on "functional plan[ning], showmanship, design and construction excellence." The Zoe Theatre was one of only two Illinois theatres (the other being Holiday Theatre in Park Forest) to receive the award in 1951.

Building Description

The Zoe Theatre in Pittsfield, Illinois, is a rectangular, two-story brick building with a single-slope roof and concrete foundation, occupying one city lot at 209 North Madison Street in Pittsfield's historic commercial district. Designed in 1950 by Ted Dell in a late Art Moderne architectural style with Modernist influences, the Zoe Theatre is a remodeling of an older building. The building's distinct square facade is clad entirely in panels of tri-colored structural glass and features a large semicircular stainless steel and porcelain enamel canopy topped with an internally-illuminated attraction sign and a vertical porcelain enamel and neon sign. A polished aluminum box-office with three full-glass entrance doors are recessed under the marquee.

The Zoe Theatre is situated on the west side of the 200 block of North Madison Street, less than a block away from the northwest corner of the courthouse square in Pittsfield's commercial district. Surrounding properties are commercial, including an adjacent two-story building to the south and a one-story building to the north. The building has zero setback and a concrete sidewalk running parallel to the building along Madison Street forms the eastern boundary of the lot. A blind concrete alleyway forms the western boundary.

The Zoe Theatre was completed in 1950 from the designs of local designer Ted Dell. The first-run movie theatre is a complete remodeling of an 1870s building, originally an agricultural product/feed store and later an auto parts store. The elegantly modern theatre was designed in a late Art Moderne architectural style with Modernist influences. A concrete foundation supports a tall two-story space with a balcony, concealed on the exterior by a windowless cladding of structural glass with a streamlined marquee and neon sign.

Due to the building's mid-block location, the east (main) elevation is the theatre's only primary facade. The flat square form with little surface ornament is raised on a very low concrete foundation. The exterior wall is clad entirely in three colors of structural glass, red bulkheads sit below a continuous plane of ivory glass while above the theatre marquee, the windowless and symmetrical facade features a decorative border of spaced squares of beige glass panels with smaller squares of red glass centered within, extending vertically from immediately above each side of the marquee up to and across the parapet level and terminating just shy of the facade's centerline, on either side of the neon sign. Beige-colored panels are inlaid into the ivory, while red squares are in relief, affixed to the beige panels beneath. Barely noticeable are thin horizontal metal dividing strips underneath each row of structural glass, their use beginning above the canopy and continuing to the top of the facade. A small wooden door (access panel onto the marquee) is to the south of the vertical building sign. Although some of the structural glass panels are missing from the main elevation, most are stored in the building for future restoration.

Below the canopy, the ground-floor facade is comprised of a recessed slightly off-center entryway and box office. The narrow south edge of the recessed opening is clad in structural glass, matching the design of the main facade. The entryway consists of three full glass doors at the south end of the recessed opening, set at an angle so that the north end of the entryway penetrates deeper into the building than the south end, creating a sidewalk vestibule. The floor of the vestibule is composed of square and rectangular ceramic tiles in three shades of green, set in a block random pattern. The three tempered polished plate glass doors lack supporting cross sash between them, with only top and bottom channels of anodized aluminum (locks are in bottom channels). Originally, each door had a pair of horizontal tubular Lucite pull bars (one on each side of the door), placed off-center and held in aluminum fittings. The pull bars are missing from the south door. All three doors are double acting and are set in a polished and anodized aluminum frame with an aluminum threshold. A small manufacturer's mark on the inside frame near each top hinge reads "PITTCO" along with a logo of the PPG. A small polished aluminum box office is in the north end of the recessed opening. The south plane of the booth emanates at a ninety degree angle from the northernmost of the three doors, angles outward at the corner to create a chamfer, then angles again to be flush with the main facade. Three small angled and butt-glazed windows are held in a continuous polished aluminum frame, with vertically-arranged decorative polished aluminum mouldings below. The box office does not extend all the way to the ceiling and matches the height of the entry doors. Polished stainless steel? panels cover a narrow area above the doors, forming a curve behind the box office, and the ceiling of the recessed entrance. To the south of the recessed entryway and separated from it by one panel's width of structural glass is an aluminum-frame movie poster display case, accessible from the inside of the building. The display case begins above the red structural glass bulkheads and terminates at the height of the entry doors and the box office. A matching display case, now boarded up with plywood, exists to the north of the box office. To the north of the northern display case is a slightly recessed door to the balcony level of the theatre. It matches the height of the other doors. Originally, the door was likely glass, as indicated by an extant polished aluminum frame, but the existing door is made of various plywood sections and has a small square light near top center. The recessed edges of the door frame are clad in structural glass.

The theatre marquee remains intact, projecting symmetrically from the center of the main elevation and sheltering the sidewalk in front of the box office and entryway. The bottom of the marquee is a flat and semicircular canopy with a ceiling of white porcelain enamel and polished stainless steel fascia. Above the canopy and perpendicular to the building facade is a large, rectangular, internally-illuminated, changeable-letter, and double-sided attraction sign, encased in polished stainless steel. The front edge of the attraction sign is a narrow vertical strip of yellow porcelain enamel, illuminated by two rows of incandescent bulbs. The narrow strip extends down and along the ceiling of the canopy, all the way to the wall plane of the building. The attraction sign does not sit immediately on top of the canopy; the narrow space between the two elements combined with the strip of illuminated yellow porcelain enamel travelling underneath the canopy, create an illusion of the canopy being suspended from the sign.

Immediately above the attraction sign is a large two-sided vertical porcelain enamel building sign, placed against the building facade and separated from the structural glass only by narrow strips of polished stainless steel. The sign extends vertically nearly to the top of the building. Each face of the sign has vertically stacked sans-serif block letters spelling out "ZOE" in cream porcelain enamel on a field of maroon. At the bottom, also on each side, is a small mark, again in cream over maroon porcelain enamel that reads "C. BENDSEN DECATUR ILL." The front edge of the sign has a rounded profile while the top of the sign is terminated by an offset, quarter-round element in polished stainless steel.

The marquee and signs feature an extensive use of neon. Exposed tubes are placed over nearly all stainless steel surfaces, while the large block letters of ZOE are also outlined in neon. Additional neon tubing is wrapped around the rounded front edge of the building sign, in front of each letter. The neon colors are red and green. Further lighting was provided by chase incandescent bulbs in front of the attraction sign and recessed can lighting in the canopy ceiling. Some of the missing neon tubing has been destroyed, while other pieces are being stored in the building.

The north elevation is a shared party wall with an adjacent one-story building. Above the adjacent structure, the brick wall is exposed and it slopes gently towards the west (rear), where it is extended by a two-story red concrete block addition on a raised concrete foundation, built in 1950 as part of the theatre construction. At the ground level, the concrete block wall has a utilitarian unglazed wooden two-door exit with a flat brick arch. There are no other openings on the north elevation. At the east end of the north elevation is a historic typographic advertisement, painted directly onto the brick and visible above the adjacent structure. The top of the sign is partially obscured by parapet coping and is unreadable. The visible portion spells out "AGRICULTURAL WAREHOUSE," with "SMOKE" and "GREENBACK" below, each as a separate line of type. A narrow strip of ivory structural glass panels, part of the main facade, extends vertically to conceal the raised parapet at the east end of the wall.

The west (rear) elevation continues the concrete block addition. Aside from electrical panels and downspouts, the wall has two small boarded up openings at the first story, one each near the north and south corners of the facade. The openings are created by flat brick arches and steel lintels.

The south elevation is concealed as a shared party wall with an adjacent two-story building of matching height. The only visible portion is from the blind alleyway, part of the two-story concrete block addition near the west end of the elevation, extending beyond the original west (rear) facade of the building. The top of the concrete block wall is stepped and a small vented opening with a flat brick arch exists on the second story near the rear wall of the adjacent building.

The interior of the Zoe Theatre has a remarkable degree of integrity. Virtually no updating has occurred since the building was completed in 1950. The only loss of historic finishes, confined primarily to the ceiling, has occurred due to a damaged and leaky roof which was repaired in 2005.

The Zoe Theatre does not have a basement but the auditorium slopes down towards the stage (west), where the floor level is below ground. A two-story space exists in front of the building (east) with a lobby, candy stand, foyer and bathrooms on the first story and a tiered balcony, cry room, and projection booth on the second story.

The first story consists of a lobby, candy stand, foyer, restrooms, and auditorium with a stage. The narrow lobby is located at the east end of the building and is accessible through the three glass entrance doors. The lobby is rectangular with the exception of the east edge which conforms to the angular plan of the storefront. The floor of the lobby is the same as in the exterior vestibule and it continues inside underneath the glass entrance doors, square and rectangular ceramic tiles in three shades of green, set in a block random pattern. The walls and ceiling are green Weldtex; the walls have continuous vertical striations while the ceiling is of an alternating square pattern. Tall wainscoting of striped mahogany panels encircles the walls. A crown molding separates the ceiling from the walls and tops the wainscoting. All door openings are cased with wood trim. Two decorative fluorescent metal light fixtures hang from the ceiling. The lobby spans the width of the building and is flanked by two staircases, a straight-run exit stair to the north and an interior quarter-turn balcony stair to the south. In the northwest corner of the lobby is a small rectangular under-stair closet, accessed through a solid wood door. Near the northeast corner of the lobby are the entrance to the box office and a wooden door accessing the north exterior movie poster display case. The interior of the south display case can be similarly accessed at the southeast corner of the lobby. Each poster display case is encased with wood trim and illuminated by two recessed vertical fluorescent tubes, one on each side of the case. The small box office is enclosed by raised window openings with a wide stainless steel counter and wooden cabinets below. The wall and ceiling finish in the box office is Weldtex and a small decorative metal light fixture with a circular fluorescent tube hangs from the ceiling. In the southwest corner of the lobby are remains of an original candy stand. The stand itself is missing, its whereabouts unknown, but a flat canopy clad in green Weldtex with a decorative valance of alternating white and red fiberboard panels is suspended above where the candy stand stood. The northeast corner of the canopy is chamfered and above it sits a sign that reads "FRESH POPCORN," executed in individual sans-serif acrylic channel letters of white faces with red sides, each letter bottom-mounted to a metal plate and placed above the edge of the canopy. In the southwest corner of the stand area is a small wooden door accessing another under-stair closet. In center of the west wall of the lobby are adjacent pairs of walnut doors leading to the foyer. Only the north door has a streamlined vertical aluminum pull handle on the lobby side while all four doors have matching push plates in the foyer.

The rectangular foyer, located immediately to the west of the lobby, is extremely narrow and flanked by two small restrooms; women's to the north and men's to the south. Each restroom is tucked under a stairway and contains a porcelain lavatory and toilet, with green painted walls and wainscoting of square ivory tiles and a black top border. In the west wall of the foyer is a long raised opening with a maroon and gold curtain between decorative top wooden valances, flanked to the north and south by door openings into the auditorium. As in the lobby, the foyer's walls and ceiling are green Weldtex but the wainscoting is shorter and of fiberboard panels with faux brown leather finish. The floor in the foyer was originally carpeted but is now exposed concrete. Two recessed light fixtures and speakers are at each end of the foyer's ceiling, while an aluminum fixture that once held a painted glass or Lucite exit sign (matching the one found on the second story balcony), hangs above the doors to/from the lobby on the east wall.

The auditorium is accessed through the foyer to the east. The eastern part of the auditorium is under the second story balcony. Thereafter, it opens up into a two-story space. The concrete floor slopes down toward the stage, located at the west end of the space. Three rows of seating, separated by two aisles, begin immediately at the east end of the auditorium. The aisles were originally carpeted in a decorative gold, green and red floral pattern, as found remaining in the balcony and staircases. The remainder of the auditorium floor was exposed concrete. The center row is six-seats wide, while the side rows are four-seats wide. Several seating rows in the front (west) of the auditorium have been demounted but are still in the space, placed against the side walls and the stage. The seats are green and ivory metal with wooden armrests, and have maroon plastic upholstering and fabric back rests. Decorative streamline motifs are found on the aisle-side panels of the seats. The walls and ceiling of the auditorium, including the open second story balcony, are finished in several colors and textures of fiberboard. A wainscoting of faux brown leather is topped by a symmetrical arrangement of three horizontal panels of tan, all joints concealed with narrow green moldings, at the top and bottom of the wall, with a center tan panel flanked by narrower cream panels outlined in red trim. The solid railing of the balcony is similarly covered with a horizontal center panel of cream fiberboard and tan panels above and below. On the north and south walls, the horizontal panels are divided into three sections (fourth at the east end of the balcony), by continuous vertical panels of cream fiberboard with red trim, each with two vertical abstract floral motifs in tan with painted thin blue lines. The floral patterns are in relief, placed one above the other. Tiered and curved soffits (concealing HVAC ductwork) in cream and tan fiberboard span the length of north and south walls and also underneath the balcony along the east wall of the auditorium. The ceiling of the auditorium as well as under the balcony was mostly in cream fiberboard and has been nearly completely destroyed by water damage.

Near the stage, the paneled walls curve inward towards it and their design is dramatically altered with angled panels of cream fiberboard and red trim, each containing a relieved curved undulating tan shape pointing towards the stage. The stage side of the curving wing walls is cut away in two rounded profiles, behind which is cove lighting of blue and gold neon. Two cased openings, one on either side of the stage, are also cut into the wing walls, with aluminum and Lucite exit signs above. The raised stage can be reached through the openings via short flights of curved wooden stairs. The northern stair also leads directly to a double-door exit near the northwest corner of the auditorium. The doors have an unglazed five-panel design and lead out to the alleyway behind the building. The movie screen has been punctured and ripped but sections of the original decorative gold curtain fabric of the proscenium arch still survive. Additional fabric originally hung from the ceiling behind the curved wing walls flanking the stage and in the exit door openings, entirely concealing the brick and concrete block walls that are now left visible. Behind the screen and against the west exterior wall in the auditorium are two large vertical HVAC ducts. Also behind the screen and near the north end of the stage is a trap door leading to a small area under the stage which contains various mechanical equipment. The stage itself has a front of faux brown leather fiberboard base with two horizontal strips of stained oak separated by half-round cream-painted moldings above. The stage floor is wood.

The second story consists of a tiered balcony, cry room, and projection room, all located at the east end of the building and accessible by an interior quarter-turn staircase from the lobby against the south wall of the building and a straight-run exit staircase against the north wall.

The narrow quarter-turn staircase to the balcony level begins in the southeast corner of the lobby. One step leads to a landing above which the stair turns ninety degrees and runs straight up against the south wall of the building. It is enclosed on both sides with walls clad in faux brown leather fiberboard. A wooden railing is mounted to the south wall. The stairs themselves are wood with an original carpet runner with a gold, green and red floral pattern.

The top of the staircase opens up to a continuous north-south aisle that separates four lower tiers of seating from upper rows, two center rows in front of the projection booth and four rows in the southeast corner in front of the cry room. Two small cross aisles divide the seating into sections that match the configuration in the auditorium, six center seats are flanked by four-seat wide sections. The theatre seats are also identical. The floor of the balcony is wood with carpeted aisles. The ceiling, north and south walls continue the fiberboard design of the auditorium, while the east wall has fiberboard paneling at the north and south corners and painted plaster on the walls of the projection booth.

The south balcony aisle steps up towards the east (front of the building) and leads into a small cry room in the southeast corner of the second story and projection room in the center. The cry room has a large glass window, framed with stained wooden trim, facing west towards the movie screen. The interior of the small rectangular space is accessed through a six-panel wood door. The walls are green Weldtex with faux brown leather fiberboard wainscoting and tan fiberboard ceiling. A wooden speaker is centered above the window. At the end of the aisle and to the north is the projection room, with a concrete floor and painted plaster walls. In the northeast corner of the room is a small restroom with a toilet. In the southeast corner of the room and at floor level is the access panel onto the marquee. Much of the original projection equipment is still in the room.

The north balcony aisle leads to a windowless room in the northeast corner of the second story. Accessed through a four-panel wood door, the room has three continuous wooden tiers and fiberboard finishes matching those of the balcony and auditorium. This space, originally open to the rest of the balcony and providing additional rows of seating, was enclosed at a later date with a wall of random rectangular pieces of tan fiberboard.

At the north end of the main balcony aisle is a wall-mounted aluminum and Lucite exit sign for a straight-run exit stairway against the north wall of the building. The finishes match those of the south staircase. An additional handrail is attached to the south stairwell wall.

The theatre closed in 1987 and has sat vacant ever since. Exterior changes include alteration or replacement of the northern exit stair door, boarded up window of the northern movie poster display case, and missing Lucite pull bars on one of the glass entrance doors. A large portion of the marquee and sign neon tubing is also broken or missing, although some pieces, including the silhouette lettering from the north face of the sign, do survive and are stored inside the building. The largest loss of integrity is due to missing structural glass panels from sections of the storefront and delamination of two red squares on the upper facade. Many of these are surviving and are stored inside the building awaiting future restoration. At an unknown date there was a replacement of four structural glass panels between the south movie poster display case and the entrance. The panels used do not match the ivory color of the original glass. Instead, they appear to be Alamo Tan. The wooden access panel above the canopy was either disguised with structural glass or another material, or installed at a later date. On the west (rear) elevation, two small openings have been boarded up. A pair of five-panel wood exit doors near the northwest corner of the building has also been covered with plywood.

A majority of interior integrity losses are due to roof water leaks which were remedied in 2005. The leaks have destroyed the fiberboard ceiling of the auditorium and caused isolated damage to fiberboard wall panels throughout the building. The deteriorated fiberboard ceiling is also responsible for majority of the debris strewn everywhere across the auditorium. Additional interior changes include the removal of the candy stand in the lobby and a missing sign letter above the surviving canopy; removal of carpeting in the auditorium aisles; several missing Lucite exit signs; damaged movie screen in the auditorium and removal of decorative fabric behind curved wing walls flanking the stage; and removal of several rows of seating at the front of the auditorium (the seats are still in the space just demounted from their original locations). On the second story balcony, the northeast corner above the exit staircase was enclosed at an unknown date to create a windowless room.