Design Icon: C. Howard Crane

Without any architecture training, Crane built some of the most decadent theaters of the country.

Self-made visionary C. Howard Crane moved to Detroit in the early part of the 20th century with a lot of energy and grand plan: to follow lucrative automobile money and get it to shake hands with the emerging moving pictures boom, via the most spectacular buildings ever seen in Michigan.

In the spirit of innovation, Crane set up office without any formal architecture training, building instead with what he called "instinct." Stylistically, his instinct told him that if the moment was the roaring post-war 20s, a time when money was burning through wallets, it was a time to seek the new and the indulgent. Architecturally, he said, “there should be no specialists in the practice of architecture—achieving success with experience of designing and erecting buildings for a particular purpose will create aptitude and ability in that field."

This entrepreneurial spirit helped establish the moving picture theater as a new building type—one that lured audiences with flashy facades and great dreams. “It would be interesting to narrate the story of the motion picture house from its infancy to a state of high development," he said. “I entered when the industry was in its childhood, recognizing the possibilities of developing a building especially designed as a motion picture theater."

This put him at the cutting edge of a new movement in modernism, that of ornate, emotional, luxurious design, where features like highly decorative domes and nighttime illumination sent the imagination aloft with all the vaudeville charms that cinemas, cabarets, and theaters could conjure. Crane’s hand in the new Architecture of Pleasure spread quickly through Detroit and right out into the world.

By the time of the stock market crash of 1929, Crane’s firm had designed more than 300 theaters in America, Canada, and Britain, with over 50 in the city of Detroit alone. As automobile money has long since vanished in Detroit, many of these beautiful buildings are now deserted and trying to fight off the wrecking ball. As long as they still stand, they flood the city with the ghosts of the past; ghosts still sashaying down wild pomegranate-flower balustrades in lace Charleston flapper dresses.

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