Astor Theater, Reading Pennsylvania

Date added: June 07, 2022 Categories: Pennsylvania Theater Art Deco

The Astor Theatre, 730-742 Penn Street, Reading, Pennsylvania, was opened to the public on Wednesday, October 2, 1928. Built quite literally over the Arcadia Theatre (closed Memorial Day, 1928), the Astor Theatre occupied a location that has been a theatre site since September of 1891 when Eden Music and Bijou Theatre opened. For thirty-five years, the properties housed a curio hall, museum, burlesque houses, vaudeville houses, and movie houses. It was the oldest movie-showing site in Berks County; the "First Victor" was opened at 732 Penn Street in 1906 for just that purpose.

William H. Lee, a renown theatrical architect of the day, designed not only a functional theatre but "a temple of unsurpassing architectural beauty". There is a strong influence of the moderne style evident throughout the building. Moderne-ism was a new movement in art and architecture during the post World War I era, an offshoot of Art Nouveau; its characteristic curves of sinuous flora are replaced with straight lines and angles. Certain design components can be easily linked to their prototypes from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes that opened in Paris in late April of 1925.

The magnificant sunbursts supported by two fluted columns at the sides of the auditorium are recognizable as originating from the facade of the Pavillon des Magasin des Galeries Lafayette by Hiviard, Tribout and Beau. The iron grillwork that adorns the railing of the mezzanine promanade was adapted from the roofline grill of the Pavillon du Commissarial General by Chretien and Lalanne. Adaptations of architectural components of the Pavillon de la Ville de Paris and the Porte d'Honneur are in the ironwork of the railings and mirrors and in the plasterwork of the lobby's murals.

Building Description

The Astor Theatre was constructed in 1928 on the site of an earlier theatre. The theatre was designed by William H. Lee, a noted theatrical architect. The building is 80' by 200' and constructed in a series of brick cubes. The first section housing the lobby and theatre offices is two stories high while the theatre: sections are 3 and 4 stories high.

The facade of the theatre was done in terra cotta in a modernistic style. Ornamentation consisted of a series of rectangular panels set off by pilasters. Above the large marquee were 4 piers done in a skyscraper motif. The facade was also decorated with a number of terra cotta panels of fretwork design. This 1928 modernistic style facade has been obliterated by later renovations in which the piers were removed and colored glass panels installed across the facade.

However, the interior is nearly 100% original in near perfect condition, William Lee drew his inspiration for the interior design from the Exhibition Internationale Des Arts Decoratifs Moderns, Paris 1925. The lobby of the theatre measures 50' by 28' with a ceiling height of 26'. The height of the lobby is emphasized by gilded panels of abstract design which extend to the cornice of the room. A large crystal chandelier of Art nouveau design is suspended above the ticket booth.

The lobby opens onto an even larger foyer with a 35' high ceiling. The room is supported on wide fluted pilasters with highly decorative iron grill work filling the space between the pilasters. This grill work is of a sunburst design and was taken from the roofline grill of the Pavillon du Comissarial Generale by Chretien and Lalanne. The side walls of the foyer feature murals by John Wonsettler and tile water fountains in a design representing a modern skyscraper city. Staircases off the end of the foyer lead to basement smoking rooms, retiring rooms and toilets. The staircases leading to the mezzanine promenade and balcony are hung with draperies apricot colored velour trimmed in silver. Plasterwork in a raised floral pattern also adorns the staircase walls.

On entering the auditorium from the foyer one is impressed with the richness and beauty in design of the under balcony ceiling and walls. The main side wall motifs are two gilded sunbursts supported by fluted columns. In the center of each sunburst is a large jewel shaped lighting fixture. The main ceiling is a series of recessed panels and moulding with an impressive lattice and rosette grill work on the main panel. A huge crystal chandelier is suspended from a sunburst medallion. The proscenium arch is well proportioned. The asbestos stage drop features a painting of the Reading Pagoda.

After a long battle to save the theater, it was demolished by the city in 2000 and a new civic center was constructed.