Design Icon: C. Howard Crane

Even without any architectural training, C. Howard Crane built some of the most decadent theaters of the country.
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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.

Even if domes and arches were considered bad for acoustics, Crane made use of them in the hundreds, pushing the limits of aesthetics for the pure decadence of it. In it’s almost Catherdralesque proportions and ambiance, United Artists Theatre in L.A., now the Ace Hotel, is a luxurious example.

The arcaded-Italian style Majestic Theater in Detroit, built in 1909, was Crane’s first design. With 1651 seats, it was the largest movie theater in the world at the time. There is a myth that the great magician Houdini performed the last of his bewitching performances on this stage in 1926.

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."

The LeVeque Tower in Columbus, Ohio, is a 47-story, 555-foot-tall office tower masterpiece by Crane. It was the tallest building in Columbus from 1927 until 1974; at the time of its completion, it was the tallest building between New York City and Chicago and the fifth tallest building in the world. It is noted for its brightly lit tower, which was designed to emulate a citadel.

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."

The 5,174-seat Detroit Fox Theatre was the largest of the Fox Theatres. With its unique mix of Egyptian, Far Eastern, and Indian styles, it was a movie palace exotique. Its featured two organs made it a favorite destination for thirty-five cent talkies, vaudeville, and organ concerts. The structure has weathered time and been faithfully restored.

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.

Olympia Stadium, a former home of the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, has also hosted everything from Presidential speeches to boxing matches to circus spectacles. The building was instrumental in turning Detroit into an entertainment destination.

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.

At the time of the opening of United Artists Theatre in New York, its owners proclaimed this building "the most beautiful, comfortable and up-to-date theatre in the world." As part of a United Artists Theatre series of buildings in Detroit, L.A., and New York, the idea was based a ‘movie palace’—a huge, all-encompassing destination where movies, recording studios, theater, and symphony performances, could all intermingle inside dazzling interiors.

Crane’s best know British commission was the Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre, an Art Moderne convention center that opened in 1937. In his London obituary it was written that, "Earl’s Court of London, 118 foot-high arena seating 30,000, was among the structures for which Mr. Crane was architect; it was built over a network of six railway lines without stopping a single train during construction." The interior of Earl’s Court oozes the luxurious, and is still enthralling audiences today.


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