Abandoned theater in Ohio

Marlow Theater, Ironton Ohio
Date added: February 07, 2023 Categories: Ohio Theater Classic Revival
Third St. and Park Ave. facades (2007)

The Marlow Theatre Building is an imposing early twentieth-century four-story commercial building situated on a corner parcel with an attached theater in the central business district of Ironton.

The Marlow Theatre opened in 1920 and was constructed adjacent to the Marting Hotel. The name for the Marlow Theatre is commonly known to have been a contraction of the Marting and Lowry family names. Dr. A.C. Lowry was Henry Marting's business partner and son-in-law. Col. Henry A. Marting was an important name within Ironton and had been instrumental in starting several businesses and owned three iron furnaces in the early 20th century. Col. Marting was influential in the completion of the Marting Hotel after that project had languished for years under other leadership. The hotel opened in 1919 and Col. Marting died in November of that same year.

Unfortunately, within the year after Col. Marting's death, the company stock was handled poorly and all was lost due to a drop in the iron market. Members of the Marting family continued involvement with business and civic activities throughout the years, but not to the extent that the Colonel did.) The Marting family remained a fixture in Ironton's business community despite losses in the iron industry after the family patriarch died. Investments with the Marting name after 1920 did not reflect the family's industrial heritage. The Marting family moved away from the production of iron and invested the family money in movie theaters and motels. While such businesses served a purpose and provided a certain type of boosteristic pride, they were not the traditional industries that provided industrial jobs for the community. Even with the Marting family involved as contributors to the Marlow Theatre, it appears that they had little or no role in the theatre's operation. Newspaper articles and the Marlow's advertisements simply discuss the building's features and programming as planned by 'management.'

Despite announcements of a November 1 grand opening in the Ironton Daily Register, the Marlow Theatre didn't open until Christmas Day. Both the Morning Irontonian and the Ironton Daily Register ran advertisements for the Marlow's grand opening. Following the grand opening the Daily Register reported, "The opening of the Marlow theatre Christmas day exceeded the expectations of the management. The new show house was crowded for every performance and the crowds were pleased with the program." Marlow Theatre was managed by the Ohio Amusement Enterprise, owned by Nicholas McMahon, Jr. The address of the 735-seat theater at this time was 212 S. Third Street. The theater was built to accommodate motion pictures, although special vaudeville type performances were presented on occasion. The silent films were accompanied by live music, Hall's Symphony Orchestra.

In 1926 the theater was sold to Robert and Joseph Stern, owners of the Iron City Amusement Company. Under the stewardship of the Sterns, a Sunday movie screening was initiated on October 10, 1926. It was the first showing of movies on a Sunday in the tri-state region and drew crowds from neighboring cities. The Marlow showed the first talking pictures in Ironton on August 12, 1929. Between 1935 and 1938, the address changed from 212 to 206-208 S. Third Street. By 1942 the theater transferred to the Sexton Theatre Company. In 1949 Mrs. Fronice Sexton is listed as the manager of the theater.

The Marlow Theater last appears in the city directories in 1952 and the address is listed as "vacant" in 1954. A dry cleaner is at this address in 1956. A 1928 Sanborn map revised through 1960 shows the theater as being adapted to three commercial spaces, each with their own storefront.

The theatre also served as a venue for large community meetings, of particular note was one held in 1937 regarding flood control.

Addresses correlating to the Park Avenue side of the commercial block, 210 and 220 Park Avenue, in city directories reflect various businesses through 1935. The occupants are W. F. Phipps & Co. (Brokers, Stocks, Bonds & Insurance) at 210 (only in 1922-23) and C. F. Johnston & Co. (Dry Goods and Ladies Ready-to-Wear) at 220. C.F. Johnston & Co. moved to this location in 1920 from 6 N. Second St. and had been in business since ca. 1914-15. A newspaper article dated May 2, 1932 announces the closing of this business. In 1935, 220 Park Avenue is listed as the side entrance for the Marlow Grill. (The restaurant's main address was 202-204 S. Third St.) The address disappears by 1938. The only other businesses listed on Park Avenue between 1926 thru 1958 are the Hotel Marting and businesses within it.

The Marlow Grill Restaurant was listed just one year, 1935, at 202-204 S. Third St. After it, the Gas Appliance Co. (heating appliances) was at this address between 1947 until post-1958. In addition, other short-term businesses between 1947 and 1958 included a few women's clothing shops (204), a few insurance companies (204), a realty company (204), a finance company (210), and a dentist and a chiropractor (204 1).

Because of Ironton's importance in the iron industry of the Hanging Rock Region, it also developed into an important port on the Ohio River and busy railroad stop. This and other industrial endeavors beyond iron production made Ironton a lively city into the 1940s. "This nationally renown iron producing area was centered in Lawrence County, and the status of the region is reflected in the massive homes built by these industrialists."

Similarly the status of the region was reflected in Ironton's central business district. Several large scale buildings were constructed in the downtown, especially during the first decades of the twentieth century. The majority of them are high style architecture, in particular, Neo-Classical Revival. In addition to the Marlow Theatre, other Neo-Classical Revival buildings include the depot, 1908; post office, 1912; the county courthouse, 1909; and numerous commercial structures.

Being the county seat, Ironton's downtown was not completely dependent upon local industry for survival. Additionally, its commercial enterprises were able to flourish as people from the countryside traveled to Ironton for shopping, recreation, and business. Horse drawn streetcars had been facilitating travel into the business district since 1888. In 1897 that mode of travel became more efficient as the lines were electrified and expanded. The Ironton-Russell Bridge, the first bridge over the Ohio River for private use in Lawrence County, was completed in 1922. This enabled Ironton to be a regional destination in the 1920s not just for southern Ohioans, but also for people living across the river in the Russell, Kentucky vicinity. At 22 miles away, the next largest city in southern Ohio was Portsmouth. Located in the very southern tip of Ohio and being in the center of the Hanging Rock Iron region, Ironton is more comparable to Ashland, Kentucky and Huntington, West Virginia than other southern Ohio cities. Historically, and currently, it is identified as part of the tri-state region.

The city boasted various entertainment options by 1920 including: theaters, skating rinks, professional sports teams, circuses, street fairs, and showboat performances at the river landing. Beechwood Park established in 1903 provided recreational space in the city. The Ironton Elks organized in 1890, the local Rotary Club was organized in 1920 and the Lions Club in 1924. Although a private club the Elks held weekly public dances. Special dances were also held at the Marting Hotel.

Because Ironton had a healthy economy and regional draw in the early 20th century, it was able to support several theaters. Additionally, Ironton was an overnight stop on the Chicago to Washington D.C. railroad line, which supplied extra people in the downtown looking for evening entertainment. Ironton's theatres included venues for live performances as well as motion pictures. Previous to the Marlow Theatre were the Opera House, within the Masonic Temple, and the Empire Theater. The Masonic Temple burned in 1915 and the Empire Theater in 1920. At the time of Marlow's construction there were three other theaters in operation: the Eastern (2105 S. 3rd), the South Side (1223 S. 3rd), and the Grand (319 Center).

Ohio Amusement Enterprise managed the Marlow and also began management of the Grand Theatre in 1920. Hall's Symphony Orchestra was transferred from the Grand upon Marlow's opening. Additionally, the company opened the Orpheum Theatre in 1920. This theatre was located in the remodeled space of the former Princess Skating Rink on 3rd Street. It was Ironton's new vaudeville house and had a grand opening December 27, 1920, two days after Marlow.

The 1928 city directory lists the Lyric (226 N 2nd) along with the Eastern and South Side as moving picture theatres. Marlow and the Grand are simply listed as theatres and the Orpheum is not listed. By 1935 only Marlow, the Lyric, and South Side were still operating. In the post-World War II economic boom there was a revival in downtown theatres. The Ro-Na Theater, located on 3rd Street in the next block from Marlow, was built in 1949. The Grand and Marlow were still operating and the old Eastern Theatre was reopened as the State. Another new theatre, the Queen, is listed at 442 Bellefonte. In the 1950s only the Ro-Na and State were operating.

"The well lit Marlowe was a cultural attraction in the 1920s" and is significant in illustrating the role that entertainment played in Ironton. Theaters were long considered an asset to a community and having multiple theaters such as in Ironton contributed to its status as an urban center. Newspaper articles and Marlow's opening day advertisements boast of metropolitan features in the theatre and first-class movies like those shown in big cities. Of the other theaters operating in the early 20th century, only the Marlow and Ro-Na remain. The Ro-Na is currently vacant and was last used as an auto parts store. The two theaters differ architecturally as the Ro-Na represents the later eye-catching Art Deco era of theaters, while the Marlow represents the more conservative early twentieth-century theaters that had the outward appearance of being any other commercial building in the downtown.

The Marlow Theatre building housed several commercial enterprises including the theater itself and exemplifies Ironton's retail development c.1920. The C. F. Johnston & Co. department store was located on the first and second floors from 1920 to 1932. Specialized stores for dry goods, clothes, and home furnishings required shoppers to patronize multiple shops. Department stores combined these disparate items under one roof and the emerging trend of department stores had arrived in Ironton by the 1920s. Five department stores were listed in the 1928 city directory (Frankel's Union, C.F. Johnston, McCain, C. Gilbert Marting, Minces, and Reynolds). The 1920s also witnessed the arrival of chain stores in Ironton with J.C. Penney's being the first in 1922. A Kroger grocery and two 5 & 10 stores (Kresge and Woolworths) were present in Ironton by 1928.

Despite the Depression and World War II retail business in Ironton seems to have remained steady based upon listings in the city directories. In the mid 1950s, five men's and four women's clothing stores were still operating along side seven department stores, including the J.C. Penney's and Sears chains.

Building Description

Constructed ca. 1920, The Marlow Theatre Building is a Neo-Classical Revival style four-story stretcher bond blonde brick commercial building and attached three-story theater. The building sits on a corner lot, with commercial storefronts along S. Third and Park Streets. The theater component is a three-story section adjacent to the commercial block, fronting on S. Third Street. The building is in the middle of Ironton's commercial district and adjacent to the Marting Hotel. Commercial buildings are present across both streets and a parking lot is adjacent to the theater. Buildings in the commercial district range in height from one to six stories with the average being two or three stories. Representatives of commercial Italianate and Queen Anne can be found, but the majority of the central business district is comprised of the Neo-Classical Revival style. Two blocks south of the building are the railroad tracks and the Ohio River.

The Marlow Theatre Building consists of a three-story theatre in combination with a four-story commercial block. Both components appear to have been built concurrently. The building's corner location creates two primary elevations with commercial storefronts, one on Park Avenue and the other on S. Third Street. They are compatibly designed in the Neo-Classical Revival style, and built with matching materials, including blonde stretcher bond brick with stone detailing. The buildings were built of fireproof construction with the exception of exposed steel in the roof of the movie theater (per the 1928 Sanborn map). The Sanborn indicates that the Park Ave. portion of the building was constructed in 1920 and this date is supported by newspaper advertisements in 1920 for Johnston's department store located in the building. The theater section of the building was completed with a grand opening on December 25, 1920.

The current configuration of storefronts on the theater section appears to have occurred between 1952 when the theater closed and 1960 when the 1928 Sanborn map was revised. The existing pigmented glass was likely added on the ground level at this time. Much of the glass is damaged or missing. The upper portion of the storefront windows have been covered with corrugated metal. Historically four small windows were symmetrically placed at the first floor and the theater door was near the corner of the building. The symmetrical facade of S. Third has three pairs of casement window openings with iron grillwork and stone surrounds centered at the second-floor level. Above each of these openings is a circular stone ornament. A plain stone parapet tops the flat roof building with three sections of ornamental balusters centered above the second-floor windows. Other detail includes multiple stone string courses, projecting vertical piers that divide the facade into sections and frame the corners of the building, and an ornamental carved stone shield above the main entry in the bay closest to the commercial block. The side elevation is a blank brick wall with plain stone bands in line with the stringcourses on the facade. Two side doors are at each end of the ground floor. The rear elevation has a metal fire escape and faces an alley-type space that provides access to the rear of the building and the adjacent Marting Hotel.

At the ground level of the theater building is a row of commercial storefronts that historically was the main level of the theater. The original main entry of the theater was on S. Third Street in the storefront that is closest to Park Ave. In this commercial space there is a checkerboard marble floor, marble wainscoting and embedded pilasters, and ornamental plaster detailing on the walls and at the cornice. This area originally served as the lobby with marble stairs leading to the second floor. In the neighboring storefront ornamental ceiling medallions are still present, which likely accompanied light fixtures over the first-floor seating area. None of the other storefronts have historic detailing from the theater era.

On the second floor above the S. Third Street entry is a small lounge with decorative detail including multiple light French doors, a ceiling medallion, and plaster detailing. Bathrooms are underneath the balcony off of the lobby area. Stairs lead up to a walkway providing access to the balcony seats. Decorative plaster detailing is still present in the balcony. The projection booth is centered above the upper balcony level. Opposite the balcony is the stage. The stage floor and decorative proscenium arch are still intact.

In general, the building has reinforced concrete floors, brick curtain walls, and unadorned utilitarian concrete stairs. Although much of the original theater components are intact, including the stage, balcony, and ornamental plaster detailing, the space is interrupted by hardware from the later installation of dropped ceilings hung throughout the present-day commercial spaces.

Presently there are only two entrances into the commercial block on the corner, one on S. Third Street and one on Park Avenue. The storefronts of the corner commercial block were altered with a brick facing ca. 1980. The second through fourth floors of the commercial block have symmetrically spaced 8/12 double-hung wood sash windows. A few of the original windows on the fourth floor on the Park Ave. elevation have been covered with plywood. There are 6 bays on the Park Avenue side and four bays on the S. Third Street side. The top story of the building is capped with Neo-Classical Revival-inspired stone decoration above the window bays and a decorative stone cornice. Other details include stone string courses and contrasting masonry pilasters on the corners. Historically the commercial block had centered entries on each facade and flanking storefront windows with multi-light transoms. The primary entry on Park Ave. had an awning.

The first-floor commercial space, currently a news/convenience store, is remodeled with little evidence of historic details. The second and third floors are laid out in early twentieth-century apartments. These spaces with floor plan intact have original wood floors, doors, transoms, baseboards, windows, wood trim and bathrooms. The fourth floor is open space with wood floor, baseboards, and square-plastered support columns. There are small 8-light sash on the wall adjacent to the theater. The stairs leading to each level are utilitarian concrete stairs. An elevator shaft exists on all levels. The interior finishes, including wood floors and plaster finishes, are in deteriorated condition, particularly in the upper floors.

Storefronts in the theater section post-date the theater's closure in 1952. The pigmented glass from this later alteration is broken or missing in many locations. Storefronts in the commercial block section were remodeled with a brick facing ca. 1980. Historic photos of the storefronts show details of the original theater marquee and sign, and traditional storefronts with prism glass panels.

Ironton History

Lawrence County was formed in 1816. Pioneers from Kentucky and Pennsylvania had established settlements on the Ohio River in the late 1790s. The area was abundant with coal and iron ore deposits and became known as the Hanging Rock Iron Region. This region of rich mineral deposits covered nearly 1000 square miles in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Beginning in the 1830s, the area became the major iron production region in the United States and Lawrence County was the production leader in Ohio. The first iron furnace, Union Furnace, was established by John Means who arrived in Hanging Rock in 1819.

Ironton, located three miles west of Hanging Rock, began essentially as a company town platted in 1849 by the Ohio Iron and Coal Company for the purpose of erecting houses and businesses to support workers at the iron furnaces. The name was an abbreviation for Iron Town. Ironton became the center of the iron production industry in the region.

Transportation was important to the development of the iron industry. Railroad construction into Ironton was begun almost immediately after the town's founding. Hanging Rock was the main shipping port for the region until the railroad was completed to Ironton in 1851. Ironton was the terminus for the Iron Railroad where it ran to eleven pig iron furnaces within Lawrence County. Ultimately four railroad lines serviced Ironton. Its location on the Ohio River was strategic as well and Ironton eventually became a bustling port city.

Ironton was reorganized as a city by the state legislature in 1851. The following year the county seat was relocated there. The estimated population when the town was founded was 500-600. It made a considerable jump to 3,691 in 1860. Population growth was steady, reaching 11,868 in 1900. It made another considerable jump by 1914 to over 16,000.

Ironton expanded as the iron business expanded in the region. Although there were other industrial pursuits, industries related to iron production were dominant such as foundries and refineries. Manufacturers of iron related products included rolling mills, nail mills, and casting companies. The quality of the iron coming from the area was such that the British preferred it during their Crimean War, 1854-1856, calling it 30% better than the best English iron.

The American Civil War caused a huge demand for iron and iron from the Hanging Rock Region was favored for casting weapons and for sheathing Union ships. The Swamp Angel, a cannon used during the Civil War, was made at the Hecla Furnace. A petition to Congress was made in the 1860s to establish a national foundry in Ironton.

In 1873 construction was completed on the Big Etna Furnace, the largest blast furnace in the world. The iron industry continued to grow until the market panic of 1873 slowed production. A second wave of demand for iron occurred in 1898 when the United States went to war with Spain. This caused a resurgence in business and construction in Ironton. The nascent automobile industry also created a new demand for iron products. Iron coming from the Hanging Rock Region was significant enough in supplying the growing auto industry that Henry Ford established the Detroit, Toledo, and Ironton Railroad.

The early twentieth-century iron boom lasted until about 1920 following the end of WWI. By the late 1920s all the iron furnaces were shut down. This is mostly attributed to the fact that the once abundant native supply of iron ore had finally been depleted. Additionally, the furnaces in the hanging Rock Iron Region were old fashioned and outdated by the 1920s compared with the furnaces of new iron and steel factories in Youngstown and Pittsburgh. Despite the closure of the iron furnaces, the economy continued to thrive in the 1920s as Ironton's business and industrial community had diversified by then. In 1923 Ironton's Chamber of Commerce represented a membership of 500. Population in Ironton increased to 21,114 by 1928.

Social activities also brought people from outlying areas into the city during the early decades of the twentieth century. The first apple show in recognition of Lawrence County's multitude of orchards was held in 1914. The Ironton Tanks, a professional football team, was organized in 1918. It was a popular and successful team through the 1920s and a stadium was built for it in 1926 (later given to the high school in 1933). By the 1920s there were two theatres, three moving picture theatres, and a recreation and bowling center. Ironton also had a thriving commercial district with several shopping options, which further contributed to the city's regional appeal.

Ironton felt the pinch of the Depression years like most communities did. However, the retail community managed to remain steady as roughly the same number of clothing stores and department stores were operating in 1935 as were in 1928. Flood walls in Ironton were completed in 1943 after devastating floods along the Ohio River in 1937. Ironton's economic base saw a boost in the 1940s with the arrival of the chemical industry. This contributed to a small wave of construction in the city after World War II. "As Ironton celebrated its Centennial in 1949, five new business buildings had recently been completed."

By 1950 the population had declined to 16,621 and continued to decline through the 1980s as people moved out of Ironton and into suburbanized neighborhoods farther out in the county. As people moved away, shopping and recreational amenities followed them reducing the need for a trip to Ironton. Despite this, industrial diversity and local governmental offices kept downtown Ironton relatively healthy through the 1960s. Downtown decline accelerated in the 1970s after several industrial plant closings. Ironton's downtown was altered by 1970s urban renewal programs, resulting in the demolition of numerous buildings. Professional and governmental offices have kept Ironton's downtown alive. Historic buildings in Ironton include the Erlich House, Marting Hotel, N&W Railroad Depot, and Vesuvius Furnace.

Marlow Theater, Ironton Ohio Newspaper ad (1920)
Newspaper ad (1920)

Marlow Theater, Ironton Ohio Opening day newspaper ad (1920)
Opening day newspaper ad (1920)