Lincoln Theatre, Columbus Ohio

Date added: October 13, 2022 Categories: Ohio Theater

The Lincoln Theater was developed by an African-American fraternal organization; constructed by an African-American construction company; managed by an important local African-American entrepreneur; and was a center for stage and screen entertainment for Columbus' African-American population for decades. It is one of the best remaining vestiges of early 20th-century African-American history in the city.

Columbus' African-American population predates the Civil War. As early as 1810 there were 43 "free colored" citizens among Franklin County's population of 3,400 people. The "free colored" population doubled between 1840 and 1850 with an increase from 805 to 1607 people. Another large increase in population occurred during the early 20th century when the population grew from just over 9,000 in 1900 to almost 39,000 in 1940. Throughout the 19th century, African-Americans resided near the central business district of Columbus. The location of the Panhandle Railroad (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis R.R.) shops, which employed African-Americans, on the near east side led to African-American migration to the east side in the 1890s. A major increase in the minority population of the city occurred following World War I and into the 1920s when rural and Southern African Americans migrated to the city. The vast majority of these new residents moved to the downtown and near east side areas.

An article entitled "East Long Street" appeared in the November, 1922 issue of The Crisis, a monthly publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It described a thriving community, catering to a community of 25,000 African-Americans (out of a total Columbus population of 250,000). Most downtown businesses, especially restaurants, hotels, department stores and theaters, were off-limits to the city's African-American community. The article declared that "The Negro center of Columbus has always been Long Street....the social, political, and business life of this section is largely influenced by what happens on Long Street..." It went on to describe the Empress Theatre, owned by Messrs. J. E. Williams and Albert Jackson, and erected at a cost of $50,000.

"The theatre has a pipe organ that cost $10,000, and no motion picture house in the city is better equipped nor runs finer pictures than does the Empress...On the corner of Garfield Avenue and Long Street is the Colored Odd Fellows' Hall Building...the entire building is easily worth $50,000 and is one of the first buildings owned by Negroes to be erected on East Long Street. There are nearly one hundred business enterprises on East Long Street and vicinity, embracing haberdasheries, photographers, optometrists, music shops, music studios, beauty parlors, etc..."

The most exclusive residential areas for the African-American middle class, during the 1920s to the 1970s, were located within a few blocks of the Lincoln Theatre, along Monroe Avenue, Hamilton Park, and Miami Avenue.

It was not uncommon for social/fraternal organizations to allow African-American members, but they were generally organized into separate chapters. For instance, the Spring Street YMCA was organized for African-Americans in 1912 and a building was constructed in 1916 on East Spring Street (now demolished). Likewise, fraternal organizations such as the Masons, Knights of Pythias, American Woodmen, Elks and Odd Fellows also had African-American chapters. The Odd Fellows constructed a building on East Long Street at Garfield in the late 19th century (date unknown).

By the late 1920s, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was ready to rebuild. As was common in lodge buildings during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, commercial space was included as part of the design. In this case, four storefronts, a theater and a ballroom were incorporated into the building, which also included offices for the lodge.

No record of the architect's name has been found, but the imaginative Egyptian Revival style building was constructed by Carl Anderson, of Dayton, Ohio, an African-American construction company that was also responsible for building St. Paul AME Church just a few blocks away.

According to Smokey Brown, a deceased Columbus artist whose father worked for the construction company, the Lincoln Theatre was built following the same plans as the Palace Theatre in Dayton (which is still standing but is endangered).

Prior to the construction of the Lincoln Theatre, there were three other movie theaters on the east side. The Empress Theatre (1920) was located across the street at 760 East Long; the Pythian Theater (1926) at 867 Mt. Vernon Avenue; and the Vernon Theater, later renamed the Cameo Theatre, (1914) at 1058 Mt. Vernon Avenue. James Albert "Al" Jackson, a very successful real estate owner and entrepreneur, and his partner James E. Williams built the brick Empress Theatre building, across the street from the site of the Lincoln Theatre building. It also housed the Empress Soda Grill and the Crystal Slipper Ballroom.

According to oral history, Mr. Jackson was spurred to develop the Lincoln Theatre due to the purchase of the Vernon Theatre by the white-owned Keith Theatre chain which had a "No Admission to Negroes" policy. This angered Al Jackson, who became determined to build a grand and beautiful theater especially for Columbus' African-American population. Jackson and his former partner's widow approached the Odd Fellows to manage a theater to be built in the new Ogden Lodge.

Originally known as the Ogden Theatre and Ballroom, the Lincoln Theatre opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1929. Although the exterior design was somewhat restrained and understated, the interior was designed in the Egyptian Revival style. According to an eyewitness account of the opening night "...the patrons felt as if they were seated in a beautiful Egyptian palace because of the strategically placed decorated pillars and other Egyptian drawings on the cream walls and on the red velvet stage curtains. The dress of the ushers carried out the Egyptian theme. They wore long billowing green satin trousers, gold satin long-sleeved billowing shirts and red satin bow ties..." The patrons were entertained by the nationally known Sammy Stuart Orchestra. Not surprisingly, the opening of the theatre passed without mention in the Columbus Dispatch, the city's daily newspaper. In fact, the Ogden, Empress and Vernon Theaters were not even listed under neighborhood movie houses in the newspaper's entertainment section. Jackson went on to develop other near east side properties, including the Theresa Building for African-American professionals, and the Jackson-Logan apartments. Ironically, following Jackson's death, his heirs sold his interest in the Ogden Theatre to the Keith Theatre chain that had the earlier policy prohibiting African-Americans from attending their theatres. In 1939 the name was changed to the Lincoln Theatre, which is how it is still known today.

Columbus' near east side has a rich musical history. From the 1930s to the early 1960s, this area of Columbus was known as a major jazz center. Many of the country's great jazz musicians played in clubs on Mt. Vernon Avenue and Long Street. One of the popular venues for live music was the Ogden Club (later the Lincoln Ballroom) on the second story of the Lincoln Theatre. According to one study completed in 1933, the Ogden/Lincoln was the longtime home of stage shows and musical entertainment that showcased both local and national entertainment. The Big Band tune "Jersey Bounce" was written in the Lincoln ballroom, according to Gene Walker, a Columbus musician. Among the bands that played in the Lincoln Ballroom was the Eckstine Band, which launched the careers of a number of legendary jazz stars such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughn.

Vaudeville provided an important source of work for African-American entertainers. The Theatre Owners Booking Association was responsible for circuit bookings in African-American-owned theaters. The Empress, Ogden, and Pythian Theatres all supplemented movie showings with live vaudeville entertainment.

Segregation in Columbus fueled the commercial and cultural development of the neighborhood along Long Street and Mt. Vernon Avenue. Since African-Americans were not allowed in most downtown stores, hotels, restaurants and theatres, Columbus' African-Americans patronized neighborhood businesses. By the 1940s Mt.Vernon Avenue was known as "The Avenue" and Long Street was called "The Million Dollar Block." This thriving neighborhood had churches, theaters, restaurants, banks, doctors, barber shops, grocery stores, clothing stores and nearly everything else the resident population needed. Otto Beatty, Sr., a long-time business owner, said of this period, "At night, when the lights were on, Long Street looked like Las Vegas. If you were looking for someone, you could find them on Long Street...."

Since downtown hotels allowed whites only, several hotels were constructed on the near eastside. Hamilton (demolished) and less than a block from the Lincoln and Empress Theatres. Many of the African-American musicians traveling through Columbus stayed at hotels in the Long Street/Mt. Vernon Avenue area.

The character of the near east side began to change during the 1960s with two major events. The beginning of racial integration gave neighborhood residents more options where to shop, live, work and worship. At the same time the construction of Interstate 71 displaced over 10,000 residents and introduced a physical barrier between the downtown and the near east side. As houses were demolished for construction of the freeway, the east side neighborhood population began its decline. Small businesses were affected adversely by both the decrease in population and the increased competition from outside the neighborhood. An article in an issue of Airfare magazine (published by the local PBS television/radio station) recalled the changes that took place as the neighborhood began to deteriorate: "Lost are the clubs and ballrooms that hosted such musical giants as Count Baste, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Stan Getz, Ray Charles, Miles Davis.... Those were the clubs and ballrooms that also served as performance homes for Columbus' own Jazz musicians...." The Lincoln Theatre has been vacant for years; the Cameo and Empress Theatres have been demolished, and the Pythian Theatre has been rehabilitated and reopened in 1987 as the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for the Arts.

Closed from the early 1970s, the Lincoln was the object of numerous unrealized restoration projects in the following decades. Finally, in 2007, the current Lincoln Theatre Association led a coalition of supporters including the City of Columbus, Mayor Michael B. Coleman, Franklin County, and local businesses to launch a thorough renovation of the theater. Combining restoration of the original Egyptian-themed decorative elements with completely modern facilities, seating and stage equipment, the renovated venue reopened to the public on May 25, 2009, with an open house.

Building Description

The Lincoln Theatre is a mixed-use commercial block, constructed in 1929, and located on a prominent corner on the near east side of Columbus. The building consists of three stories and a basement and is steel frame construction with a brick exterior. The front portion of the building consists of storefronts and the theater lobby on the first floor; a ballroom on the second floor; and offices on the third floor. The rear section consists of the main portion of the theater and the stage area. The truncated hipped roofline is covered with standing seam metal on the visible portions and a built-up roof on the flat center section. The building measures seven bays on the principal facade. The side elevation consists of five bays in addition to the tall rear section of the building that provides fly space for the stage. All of the window openings have steel casement sash.

The principal facade (north elevation) faces East Long Street and features four storefronts, a central recessed entrance to the theater, and an entrance to the ballroom and offices in the westernmost bay. The storefront level of this facade is faced with limestone. The storefronts each have a recessed entry and stone base beneath the storefront windows. A belt course with a carved wave pattern extends across the entire facade above the storefronts. The otherwise unadorned entry to the theater is marked by the deteriorated "Lincoln" marquee. The marquee is Art Deco in design and dates from the 1930s. It appears that the LINCOLN letters were highlighted with neon at one time. The central three bays of the facade, above the theater entrance, are accentuated with a darker brick placed within a slight recess. The casement window sash are stacked above one another on the second-floor level indicating the location of the second-floor ballroom. The third floor level on the facade also features casement windows. A slightly raised parapet features G.U.0.0.F. (Grand United Order of Odd Fellows) in applied letters flanked by two small circular windows.

The east elevation, along Garfield Avenue, is also very simple In design. The buff brickwork is broken only by casement windows on the second and third stories. A raised central parapet features two small circular windows like the parapet on the front elevation. The section of the building housing the stage fly space is relatively unadorned. The west and south elevations have red brick rather than buff-colored brick facing material.

The public spaces of the interior were located on the first and second floors and consisted of a theater and ballroom. Designed as a contrast to the restrained exterior of the building, the interior reflected a highly decorated Egyptian Revival theme. Although the interior has sustained much damage as a result of vacancy for many years, elements of the Egyptian Revival style are still evident. Two large columns, constructed of plaster with painted ornamentation have survived (although some of the painted ornamentation is missing) on the left side of the proscenium arch. A deteriorated stage curtain with a visible decorative border is extant. In the lobby area, some portions of a decorative plaster cornice are still in place.

A separate entrance leads to the ballroom on the second floor and offices on the third floor. The lobby area is simple in design with a wooden ticket booth to the right of the entrance and a painted steel staircase leading to the upper floors. The ballroom area is a single open space with a stage located at the eastern end. A mezzanine is located along the entire south side of the room. Some of the decorative elements of this space have survived including pieces of plaster ornamentation with Egyptian motifs that once formed the door surround and portions of the capitals on the wall pilasters that also employed Egyptian floral motifs.

The third floor has a corridor along the south side with offices opening onto it. These offices vary in size, and many of the current partitions are not original. Because of the design of the roof truss system, the ceiling height of these rooms is about twelve feet compared to the much grander scale of the theater and ballroom spaces. Finishes are quite plain with simple wooden door frames.