Detroit’s C. Howard Crane was the nation’s most imaginative and productive theater architect in the 1920s. I do not know the first theater that he designed. The building you see was among his early works, although the sketches he drew in the year before World War I may not resemble the building you visit when you go to the Majestic Theater in this Twenty-first Century. I think that there was a Majestic Theater located on Woodward closer to Campus Martius than this building. At some point, they realized they needed a larger venue so the owners commissioned C. Howard Crane to design a facility that could be used primarily for showing moving pictures. In that era, that meant silent black and white films. When this structure was built, it may have been the largest building erected primarily for the showing of movies in the country. However, C. Howard Crane designed a stage so that popular vaudeville shows could also use this facility when they came to Detroit. What you see in the photograph above is Crane’s accomplishments, long before he designed other National Historic Landmarks including the Fox Theater about one mile to the southeast along Woodward. His Fox Theater in St. Louis is also a National Historic Landmark.
So far as I know, a definitive biography of C. Howard Crane has yet to be written. Born in 1885 in Hartford, Connecticut, he moved to Detroit in 1908 and began a career that led to his becoming the nation’s leading theater architect in the 1920s. He designed 52 moving picture theaters built in the city of Detroit. By the 1930s, the Depression meant that there was no demand for the talented efforts of a theater architect in the United States. He moved to London, England where he pursued a successful career designing industrial plants. He died in 1952
In 1935, Woodward Avenue was widened to its present eight lanes. Many of the buildings along Woodward were either moved about 35 feet away from the street or had their façades substantially changed. I have read that the present front of the Majestic Theater was added at that time. However, it has been reinvigorated much more recently.
I infer that the Majestic Theater, along with many other venues along Woodward Avenue, faced financial difficulties both during the Depression and then again in the years after about 1967. This building was used, for some time, as a church and also as a photo shop. In about 1987, it was taken over to serve as an entertainment venue for the city and continues to operate in that fashion. The new owners joined the historic Majesty Theater with the adjoining historic Garden Lanes bowling facilities to create an attractive downtown entertainment center.
Architect: C. Howard Crane
Date of Construction: 1915
Addition of Art Deco façade added: 1935
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
National Register of Historic Sites: Listed August 7, 2008
Use in 2011: The Majestic Café (a restaurant) and The Majestic Theater
Photograph: Ren Farley; September 20, 2008
Description prepared: March, 2011
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