Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Know Your Movie Palaces: The Englert Theatre, Iowa City

221 East Washington Street
Iowa City, IA 52240

The Englert Theatre was built in downtown Iowa City during a 1911-1913 building boom, at a cost of approximately $60,000, on a spot formerly occupied by Foster and Graham livery stable. Opened in downtown Iowa City on September 26, 1912, The Englert was owned and operated by Etta and William H. Englert, who with his brothers Bumps and John operated the local Englert Ice Company. The downtown district has always been the social and economic heart of Iowa City, since its founding in 1839. The (old) state capitol building, completed in the 1840s, and surrounding structures provide the template for the downtown for the rest of the century, dominated by Greek Revival stone architecture, and later the high-quality output of local brick factories - including one on the spot eventually occupied by this writer's alma mater, Longfellow Elementary School. Downtown Iowa City began as a center of government and learning: The University of Iowa was founded in 1847, initially housed entirely in the Capitol Building.

The Englert Theatre was designed by the Chigago architectural firm of Rapp and Rapp. Cornelius Ward Rapp (1861-1927) and George Lesley Rapp (1878-1941) built more than a hundred movie palaces throughout the Midwest, including Chicago's Central Park Theatre and Oriental (currently Ford Center for the Performing Arts), known for brilliant practical planning, clever design, and elaborate decorative detail. C.W. worked as a draftsman in Chicago beginning in 1891, founding his first architectural office in 1900. George finished at the University of Illinois in 1899 and joined his brother. They founded Rapp and Rapp in 1906, with C.W. focusing on design and George on business and sales.

Architect Edmund R. Krause hired George in 1905 to assist with his design of the Majestic Theatre (later the Shubert Theatre, 1945-2005, currently the LaSalle Bank Theatre). Krause developed lounges designed and decorated around fantastical exotic oriental motifs. The Rapps would expand on this key idea, to encompass the design of entire theatres, drenching their later colorful movie palaces with beautiful terra cotta, intricate plasterwork, hanging gardens of lighting fixtures; their giant movie palaces are grand from their movie-set spectacle staircases to the wealth of decorative detail. Little wonder that George Rapp was consulted during the designing of Radio City Music Hall in 1932. The Rapps, though, designed theatres of all scale, from plain and functional, to the sleeker cool of Art Deco in the '30s, to those opulent Morrocan and Egyptian dream houses; all designed to work comfortably with their communities and engineered for human use.

Which, really, is the biggest problem with the mall multiplex nearest you, right now.

The Englert Theatre, with 1100 seats, was originally built entirely as a "legitimate theatre", according to local historian Irving Weber, and did not show films until ... well, "later on" is the best date I could find as per Weber. The theatre's opening was a crucial milestone in the cultural development of the city. The Englert hosted vaudeville acts in those waning years of touring variety, including Exploding Kinetoscope hero Ed Wynn, and future Hellzapoppin' clowns Olsen and Johnson. Supposed former Iowa resident Sarah Berhnardt played the theatre in 1917. Seven rooms of lodging for performers was located on the third floor; the Englert family themselves resided on the second floor.

After a few years of operation, the theatre was equipped to project three-reel films, on a screen mounted behind the stage. Though Iowa City had other dedicated storefront theatres, the Englert clearly outshone them all. And as of this writing, it continues to do so; Iowa City never had a bigger, more beautiful, more perfectly located movie house.

In 1920 (or '21?), William Englert died at 46, in a bedroom on the floor above his theatre. Etta remarried, to Iowa Fruit Co. impresario James Hanlon, and they continued to operate the theatre. The 1917 photo at right is the best image I could locate of the original Englert interior. On February 13, 1926 a fire decimated the theatre, and a large part of the downtown Washington Street block. Sadly, the Rapp & Rapp interior was destroyed by the fire, though the facade survives.

The theatre was rebuilt immediately, and the 1926 remodel was handled by Des Moines architects Vorse, Kraetsen and Kraetsch. Roadshow special attractions accompanied by 60-piece orchestras made great use of the former legitimate theatre. Management changed hands several more times, and, naturally, the theatre was modernized in later decades. The splendid marquee seen in this 1940 photograph may be no more, but inside the Englert, things got even worse...

Central States Theatre Corp. of Des Moines operated the Englert into the 1980s. Though it was the most luxurious moviegoing experience in town, the single Englert giganto-screen was competing against multiplexes only a few blocks down the downtown Pedestrian Mall, within very literal walking distance! Central States' insidious solution was, sadly, to construct a partition wall and split the Englert into two screens. This is the theatre as I knew it, with cheap gypsum and orange carpeting slathered all over the walls, like a roller rink. The "new" wall was a gigantic intrusive divider that sliced right down the middle of the auditorium. Should one enter either of these theatres, it was immediately apparent that it was once one huge room. Who builds a house that deep and a balcony for a postage-stamp-sized screen? Not Rapp & Rapp, man!

Painful renovations aside, The Englert remained the funnest place to see a movie until 1999. When there were lines around the block for big summer movies, they literally stretched around a block, backing up foot traffic on the Ped Mall, and blocking heavily used sidewalks. My fondest memories are waiting seven hours in the blazing sun for The X-Files, showing up far, far too early for the first show of Godzilla, only to find no line whatsoever and a nearly empty house, and camping overnight - and through a surprise thunderstorm - for The Phantom Menace, only to immediately fall asleep when the feature started. After the construction of the Coral Ridge Mall, adjoining glorified suburb Coralville, the city's center of commerce shifted forever. The downtown shopping district died slowly and tragically, but because it is a U of I campus hub will likely never disappear entirely. Despite its inconvenient location, the mega shopping mall's umpteen-plex screens became Iowa City's preferred way to see a movie, and in 1999 the Englert management called it quits.

The theatre was purchased by a bar owner with the intention of turning it into a nightclub. There were already a dozen-odd bars in the immediate area, catering to the binge-drinking college crowd, and a citizens group was formed to convince the City to buy the historic building and hold it in trust as they scrambled to raise funds to save the Englert permanently.

When I moved from Iowa City, the Englert had been boarded up for years, a depressing sight that I had to pass every single day. The Save The Englert letters had been sitting on the marquee for so long, I honestly didn't have any faith in the project; it seemed like all that the rescue-mission had accomplished was to gut the interior.

Iowa City has a love-hate relationship with its historic architecture, with citizens bitching and moaning whenever something beautiful is about to disappear, then failing to follow through. The Save the Englert campaign was successful, though a long, long, long five years in the making. As a condition of the City's assistance, the building could not be restored as commercial movie theatre, but was fully rebuilt as a community cultural center. Local businesses donated money and assistance in massive quantity, volunteers labored for years to renovate the interior.

The Englert reopened on December 3, 2004 as it began: a stage theatre for live performance. The second floor now houses an gallery which exhibits local artists. In July 2004, the University of Iowa agreed to pay the Englert Civic Theatres, Inc. $25,000 a year for five years, plus production and service fees, to rent the space for performances from the UI Division of Performing Arts. I still haven't been inside, but when I pass it now, and the lobby isn't full of dust and two-by-fours and the cobwebbed remains of the box-office stand... I see photos of the auditorium and it's a handsome, modern theatre, and it's presenting successful touring shows and big local theatre (see my friends Kehry Lane and Aprille Clark in Hamlet next month!)...

It's there. But it's still gone. It's been gone for a long time.

The Englert will probably never be a movie palace again.

Web resources
Most of the above data is expanded, contracted and filched from the online sources below.

The Englert official site contains a concise basic history of the theatre and the Englert family.

Town historian Irving Weber's entertaining history columns from the Iowa City Press-Citizen, including his entire early '70s columns collected in book form (!), are archived as digital scans at The University of Iowa archives, and an invaluable resource.

This report on the Dearborn Bank building by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks contains a thorough Rapp & Rapp professional biography.


Anonymous said...

Dear Chris,

I was surfing the web tonight for Rapp and Rapp biographical material and happened to stumble upon your blog. I can't believe you just posted this article on the Englert today. What timing! I was wondering if you could help me with the link to the Dearborn building as I can't seem to make it work. I also wanted to let you know that as far as I know there is now concrete proof yet that the Englert was designed by Rapp and Rapp. I talked with the architect of the project last summer and he said there wasn't any concrete proof. That being said, I would love to be proved wrong. I think it has some similarities to some early Rapp designs. The Rapps are much under-appreciated and I wish there was a stand alone work about them and their theatres. I can be reached at

Thanks Paul Wolter

Anonymous said...

Ok, I just got the link to work but I would still be interested if you or anyone can else can help substantiate the Englert as a Rapp and Rapp design.


Chris Stangl said...

Hi Paul-

Hmm, I consulted a lot of secondary sources, and they either did not list a designer or listed the Rapps. Now I'm intrigued, however, and I'll try to look into it; if you talked to the restoration architect, then you've already done more footwork than I have!


Jordan said...

Sorry to be off topic Chris but you HAVE to see this if you haven't already...

Chris Stangl said...

Thanks Jordan. There's one of those on the Garfield website, too... the only thing that stinks is that you can't save your home-brewed comic strip as a jpg.

Jordan said...

Oh really?

I know most computers have a screen capture you can do, where it takes your current computer screen as a jpg, then you can crop it to just your comic...


Anonymous said...

FYI, The U of I reneged on the $25000 per year for 5 years...
and the Englert is not saved yet.... without community support, the Englert may still be lost.