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Column: Mode Theater sparks contemporary architecture in Columbus

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The red-and-white striped awnings shading the windows and ground-floor display areas are the only distinguishing elements on the building at 315 Washington St. The rest of the exterior is all brick.

Unimposing as it might be now, the structure, which most recently served as a toy store and before that a furniture gallery, occupies a rare place in Columbus history. It’s the birthplace of the city’s venture into contemporary architecture – the Mode Theater.

It’s become habit for a lot of people in Columbus to trace the beginnings of the city’s architectural fame to Eliel Saarinen’s design for First Christian Church, which was dedicated in 1942. It drew national attention to Columbus, in part because of the Saarinen reputation and the fact that it was such a break from what people in Columbus had become accustomed to in the looks of their buildings.

Actually that mold had been broken almost five years earlier when a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures Studio in Hollywood, Calif., commissioned a young Chicago architect to create designs for 26 theaters it planned in cities and towns across the United States. One of them was in Columbus.

At the time William Pereira was little known outside his home base of Chicago, but in the years that followed he took an unusual and divergent path to international fame. One of his buildings, the Transamerica skyscraper in San Francisco, is considered among the most iconic examples of modern architecture.

Actually that achievement was preceded by another type of recognition that evolved from his work designing movie theaters for the Hollywood studio. Upon completion of his assignment, he moved to Hollywood, where he became a filmmaker. He even won an Academy Award for special effects design for his work on the 1942 movie, “Reap the Wild Wind.”

In taking on the assignment to create architectural concepts for movie theaters, Pereira steered clear of cookie cutter designs, instead fashioning individual and modernistic looks for each of the buildings.

For the Mode, which would be operated by Rembusch Enterprises of Franklin (which also operated the Crump Theatre less than a block away), the Chicago architect took an art deco approach. Central to the look of the exterior was the marquee that was composed of four independent circles, each bearing a letter in the theater’s name.

When it opened Dec. 3, 1937, The Evening Republican (now The Republic) reported that “the architects have taken advantage of the beauty which lies in simple lines, properly proportioned. The lobby is attractive in its colorful deep carpeting and wood-paneled walls trimmed in bright metal. The auditorium is impressive with high walls relieved by fluting and modernistic lighting in colors.

“A good deal of attention has been paid to lighting effects from the modernistic fixtures in the foyer to the play of changing colors on the velvet texture of the curtains before the screen. And the outside lights throw a glow on the sidewalks half a square in each direction.”

Over the next 18 years the Mode would be a fixture in downtown Columbus. Both it and the Crump were able to offer first-run films, in large part because Hollywood was producing so many movies and there weren’t a lot of other leisure time activities to compete with.

The Mode was the scene for the first showing of 3-D films in the city, the 1953 release of “Bwana Devil.”

Unfortunately, there were limits to how many theaters the city could support. The Rembusch chain also operated the Rio Theater on Fifth Street between Washington and Franklin streets. In 1955 the company announced the Mode would be closed.

Perhaps the passage of time has served to basically erase the Mode from the city’s institutional and architectural history. In turn, First Christian Church was elevated to first-of-its-kind status.

The Mode hasn’t been completely ignored. Pereira’s original designs for the building are stored in the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives, and the theater is briefly mentioned in the application to have six Columbus buildings (including First Christian Church) placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

However those designs and a handful of photographic images are essentially the only physical reminders of the theater’s place in local history. The exterior bears no evidence of its art deco period, and one has to look closely to find signs of a former theater inside the building.

That it has emerged (or re-emerged) as a part of local architectural history is attributable to an accidental discovery by Henry Kuehn, a former Chicago resident now living in Louisville, Ky., who is such a fan of Columbus that he drives here from Louisville once a month to guide architectural tours of the city and the Miller House.

For several years Kuehn and a colleague have been working on an unusual book project, finding and cataloging the final resting places of America’s most notable architects.

“We started out with a list of more than 200 and so far have documented the graves of approximately 180,” Kuehn said last week from his home. “The intent is to show how they were remembered. Some of them have very simple and modest headstones. Others are far more ornate, befitting their reputations for design.”

Pereira was chosen for inclusion in the grouping because of his extensive work. He is credited for the design of more than 100 structures around the country, among them CBS Television City in Los Angeles, the Motion Picture Country House Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif., the theme building and control tower at Los Angeles International Airport, the Disneyland Hotel, the Del Webb residence in Mission Bay, Calif., the Otis Chandler residence in San Marino, Calif., and the Geisel Library in San Diego.

In going through the long list of Pereira’s buildings, Kuehn came across a mention of the commission to design the 26 theaters for Paramount. As he went down the list, he came across mention of the Mode and its hometown.

“I sure didn’t remember the Mode Theater in Columbus,” he wrote a friend after the discovery.

Despite his impressive portfolio, Pereira in some respects has suffered the same fate as the Mode Theater that he designed. He died in 1985 in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, Kuehn and his colleague have been unable to find his grave.

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