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» Cinematour Forum   » Cinema Yak   » construction and environmental concerns

Author Topic: construction and environmental concerns
Trent True
New Member

Posts: 2
From: Ashland, KY
Registered: Jun 2004

 - posted August 14, 2004 12:48 PM      Profile for Trent True   Email Trent True         Edit/Delete Post 
Another general question about construction during the 1920s and 30s: did theater construction (or construction in general, I suppose) face heavy standards at that time for energy-efficiency or environmentally friendly materials? Does anyone know about this?

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Roger Katz

Posts: 339
From: Thomaston, CT
Registered: Feb 2003

 - posted August 14, 2004 01:41 PM      Profile for Roger Katz   Email Roger Katz         Edit/Delete Post 
I don't think anyone much cared about eco-friendliness back then!

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Dave Felthous

Posts: 186
From: Seattle, WA
Registered: Jun 2003

 - posted August 14, 2004 08:47 PM      Profile for Dave Felthous   Email Dave Felthous         Edit/Delete Post 
In the early part of the past century there had been wood-frame theaters collapse under the weight of huge audiences.

In 1925 the first theater built in my home town, Longview, WA, was constructed with steel framing, although the rest was wood (Longview was built by a timber company). The local paper put out a special section when the theater opened, and one of the main headlines assured "THE COLUMBIA WILL NEVER COLLAPSE." Indeed. It's still there, beautifully restored as a concert and play house. (But the original wood floor quivers alarmingly.)

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Jim Rankin
(Jim passed away in December 2006)
Posts: 123
From: Milwaukee, WI
Registered: Oct 2003

 - posted August 15, 2004 07:29 AM      Profile for Jim Rankin   Email Jim Rankin         Edit/Delete Post 
Energy efficiency? Environmentally Friendly? In the first decades of the 20th Century? No, such were not the concerns then! The USA was just emerging from the First World War, or as they then called it in those more innocent times, "The Great War To End All Wars." The US was the only nation not to suffer significant damage from the War and so it was foremost in the position to prosper and profit from reconstruction and the then supremacy of the American dollar. The resulting construction boom of the Roaring Twenties which followed was the fanfare by which America made known its new international status as the leader of the Western World's economies, and to this day most of the rest of the industrialized world's economics are pegged to the dollar and its trends. In those days, the newly emerging technologies were tumbling out upon a world just beginning to adjust to the advances of the Industrial Revolution, and the sign of smokestacks belching black smoke was not pollution as we think of it, but a sign of industrial prosperity and superiority. Electricity was about ½ cent per kilowatt hour, depending upon where one lived, compared to an excess of 20 times that in some places today. Steel, then made almost 'dirt cheap' by the invention of the Open Hearth process, is today mostly made overseas and costs many times more for many reasons. These two items and many others figured in the making of theatres and most other structures, and with post-war costs rising but still low, there was no incentive to look for more environmentally friendly sources and means. The entire atmosphere of the nation was different then: it was 'We can do all and anything! Stand back and watch us (the US) grow!" When a conquering King stands atop the heaped bodies of his vanquished foes, he hardly considers the discomforts to them. Likewise, when the triumphant Americans stood atop the 'bodies' of the vanquished nations, they were not too concerned with the effects of such upon the ecology of the earth. After all, was not the earth limitless, and some of it still unexplored?

Against this backdrop, the builders/promoters of the Roaring Twenties spent rapidly to outspend their competitors in business, and that was as true in theatres as anywhere else. You were building the movie palace, an archetype never before attempted on a large scale, and, and as we have seen, not to be reproduced again. Worry about steel plants polluting the planet? That was someone else's concern, if indeed, anyone was really concerned about such things in those days. Insulate a theatre to reduce energy leakage and costs? Why? Though natural gas was not then usually available, Town gas (made from then cheap coal) was even cheaper than electricity, so why be concerned about using it lavishly? Indeed, lavish use was a sign of the prosperity of the times, so unlike their parents' time when there was no electricity and lamp oil was hoarded and conserved out of poverty or lack of supply. No, concern for the environment did not appear on the public view until after the Second World War when it finally became obvious that our international headlong rush to industrial prosperity had not come without a cost, and it was the immense military buildups that primarily accounted for that cost to the environment, directly or indirectly. Today, the entire economic picture is exactly the opposite, but let us be honest in what engenders most of the eco-friendly concern today. It is not really a higher regard for the earth, in the case of most people of the business world, but a frank regard for the increased costs of doing business that motivates them -- the profit motive. Costs of materials and fuels now compel them to insulate, and use energy-conserving lighting, for example, but if somehow tomorrow their costs could be reduced to the level of the Roaring Twenties, they would gleefully go back to the non-insulated, far less energy efficient ways of those days, since it would mean greater profits and that is the reason for their being, not theatres. Such standards as may have existed in 20s and 30s were concerned with safety, as other comments have shown, especially after the disastrous 1904 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago which rocked the nation into creating its first somewhat uniform approach nationally to building codes and the enforcement of them -- for the sake of safety, not environmental concerns. In those days, if a building proved too costly or uneconomical to operate, that was the concern of its owner, not the state. It was not until decades later that the state realized that increasing environmental costs were about to become their concern that the state enacted codes to reduce energy consumption so that it would not face greater demands by the public to lower costs, that it then acted in its own self-interest. That self-interest is due to wishing to get re-elected and thus stay in power, not out of any altruistic regard for the earth, and with the selfish savvy of any shrewd politician, they quickly tested the winds of public opinion, and by 1970 they fostered the first Earth Day and any and all politicians discerned the new direction in which the public winds were blowing and all jumped on the new band wagon of Environmentalism. It may mean that their campaign contributors --especially those in the building/construction industries-- would have to cough up more money to help pay for these environmental regulations, but, what the hell, it wasn't the politicians' money! The contractors moaned, but passed on the costs to their clients, while pointing the finger for this increase toward the politicians, who, in turn, pointed their fingers toward the public, the voters who could put them out of power (out of office) if they supposedly didn't do what the public demanded. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Foster consumption, or foster environmentalism; it's all the same to a politician to stay in power, and the public en masse really couldn't care less. Maybe movie palaces or the like will return again when the pendulum of public opinion again swings and consumption is again more important and the environment less so, and we will again see the cowardly politicians again doing what they always do, anything that they think will keep them in power --even if we are then really running out of power!

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Mike Law

Posts: 60
From: Sacramento, CA
Registered: Jul 2003

 - posted August 17, 2004 09:28 AM      Profile for Mike Law   Email Mike Law         Edit/Delete Post 
Jeez Jim...I'll bet your master's thesis is stunning.

My question would be, how many existing theatres still running have lead based paint and/or asbestos? 1978 was the lead paint law.

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William Hooper

Posts: 82
From: Mobile, AL
Registered: Mar 2003

 - posted August 18, 2004 03:46 AM      Profile for William Hooper   Email William Hooper         Edit/Delete Post 
Most considerations I've seen for adapting to a site just meant to withstand local environmental conditions, getting it on a strange-shaped plot, isolating it from a noisy outside, etc.

Meeting building codes is a different thing. Besides Jim Rankin's mention of the sweeping regulations for theatres regarding fire (not just the Iroquios Fire, but the 1876 Brooklyn Theatre fire which killed 300 people

& the 1811 Richmond Virginia Theatre fire

engendered the most theatre-related fire code & construction regulations. You can't burn up the governor without expecting to get legislated!

Besides electric codes, etc., the most easily visible local codes are that you'll see more theaters with peaked roofs in the north than the flat roofs in the south - local building codes to keep the roof from collapsing due to heavy snow.


Lots of historic theatres still have lots of asbestos in them. Asbestos abatement is usually done with new owners or construction, or if the asbestos is deteriorating. It's not really a hazard unless it's disturbed & releases its fibers. Asbestos removal goes on all the time; some theatres have had it removed only from areas where it may be disturbed or can be released, perfectly legal.

The crime is when garden-club organizations start running a historic theater, find out it has an asbestos curtain still in place, & indulges in the exhiliration of panic & proclamation of being Superman by saying "It must be removed immediately!" After they've said it, ego-conversation will permit nothing else. The historic, intelligent, non-Beverly Hillbillies-taste, successful solution used in restorations is to just apply a sealant to the curtain. I think the Atlanta Fox's is still in place, sealed, unmistakably & unarguably integral to that theater's decoration.

Asbestos fire curtains were usually integral parts of the decoration, painted, ornate, not surprising that local regulations may have required that it be lowered & operated before the first show of each day.

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Jim Rankin
(Jim passed away in December 2006)
Posts: 123
From: Milwaukee, WI
Registered: Oct 2003

 - posted August 18, 2004 06:58 AM      Profile for Jim Rankin   Email Jim Rankin         Edit/Delete Post 
Bill Hooper's comment about asbestos fire curtains reminds me of the solution employed by the new owner of the MODJESKA here in Milwaukee: when he noticed the drapery-painted asbestos with the (formerly) reassuring label on the bottom saying: "ASBESTOS" he merely painted over the word with the name of the theatre. Problem solved. The MODJESKA is a Rapp & Rapp design of minimal caliber now used only for live action works, but it is doubtful that even if the theatre ever had a fire, the Asbestos would ever have 'saved' it. In a book (the title of which eludes me) which I donated to the Archive of the Theatre Historical Soc. some years ago, there is a long discussion about safety in theatres, and in the chapter about Fire Curtains, it explains that asbestos fire curtains rarely actually worked more than a couple of minutes to stop the spread of fires! It seams from that chapter, that asbestos strands are so brittle that they must be wrapped around a core of cotton to support their weight, and it was the cotton which quickly burned and the curtain shattered within minutes of the stage becoming a conflagration. True, the curtains were really only meant to provide enough time for the audience to evacuate by stopping the blowing of smoke into the auditorium. If we couple all this with the fact that the asbestos type used in the fire curtains, as well as the insulation found in theatres and other buildings, to be the amphibole type that is NOT carcinogenic (see "Environmental Overkill" at: chapter on Asbestos) we will see that we can retain our beloved and ornamental asbestos fire curtains in theatres. Let us hope the fearful and self-righteous attitudes that removed so many of them will become educated to the fact that, while they may not stop a destructive fire from entering an auditorium long after a backstage fire has started, they also will not injure us with their fibers -- even if not sealed in some way. If a theatre needs a fire curtain that will withstand an hour or more of fire, it need look no further than the unique example that was created in 1895 for the historic PABST THEATER in Milw. designed by its German immigrant architect, G. Otto Strack: a web of steel wires on either side of a layer of fire bricks (clay) that weighed a lot, but would not burn under most any conditions. Of course, any fire curtain also requires enough overlap against the proscenium wall along with 'Smoke Pockets' to contain the smoke until it makes its way up to the Smoke Vent above the gridiron on the stagehouse roof.

-shortened link causing page to be really wide

[ August 19, 2004, 09:27 PM: Message edited by: Daryl C. W. O'Shea ]

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Jim Rankin
(Jim passed away in December 2006)
Posts: 123
From: Milwaukee, WI
Registered: Oct 2003

 - posted August 19, 2004 05:47 AM      Profile for Jim Rankin   Email Jim Rankin         Edit/Delete Post 
Thanks, Daryl, for altering the Link in my message, but I wonder if there isn't some way to better indicate a link in a message, such as by underlining or putting in a different color, as most sites do. Without such provision, I'm afraid that most people won't even notice that there is a link there!

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Daryl C. W. O'Shea

Posts: 181
From: Midland, Ontario, Canada
Registered: Feb 2003

 - posted August 19, 2004 09:30 PM      Profile for Daryl C. W. O'Shea   Email Daryl C. W. O'Shea         Edit/Delete Post 
How's that now? Links are easy to edit by the way, just edit the text between the [ url ] tags after you make your post. Or use the URL button on the post page.

Adam chose the colour scheme, it's his site afterall, I just try to mess things up when he's not around no notice.

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