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Palace Theater | Photo © 2020 David Bulit

The Palace Theater

Location Class:
Built: 1924 | Abandoned: 1972
Historic Designation: National Register of Historic Places (1994)
Status: Abandoned
Photojournalist: David Bulit

John Adolph Emil Emerson, Architect

The Palace Theater in Gary, Indiana, is an abandoned theater designed by renowned architect John Emerson and built in 1925 by the Max and Sons construction firm.

The architect, John Adolph Emil Eberson, was born on January 2, 1875, in Czernowitz, Bukovina, Austria-Hungary, now part of southwestern Ukraine. His parents were Sigfried and Lora Schmidt Eberson. He received his education in Dresden, Saxony, and pursued electrical engineering at the University of Vienna, graduating in 1896. Following his studies, Eberson joined the Fourteenth Hussaren Regiment of the Austrian Army.

In 1901, Eberson immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York City before settling in St. Louis. Initially employed by an electrical contracting company, he joined Johnson Realty and Construction Company, specializing in theater architecture. Together with Johnson, Eberson promoted opera houses in small towns across the eastern United States. He earned the nickname “Opera House John” for designing these venues.

In 1903, Eberson married Beatrice Salina Lamb, an interior decorator from England. They had three children: Drew, Lora Mary, and Elsa. The family relocated to Hamilton, Ohio, in 1904, where Eberson designed his first theater, the Hamilton Jewel. This 350-seat venue was housed in a pre-Civil War building. Throughout his time in Hamilton, Eberson continued designing local buildings and pursuing his passion for opera house design.

In 1910, the Ebersons relocated to Chicago, where John Eberson saw an uptick in his commissions for theater architecture. One of his early clients was Karl Hoblitzelle’s Interstate Amusement Company. His initial projects for Hoblitzelle, the Fort Worth Majestic (1911), and the Austin Majestic (1915) in Texas, while not groundbreaking in design, did not yet showcase Eberson’s signature atmospheric style.

His experimentation with atmospheric design began with the Dallas Majestic (1921), the Indiana Theatre in Terre Haute (1922), and the Orpheum Theatre in Wichita, Kansas (1922). However, it was with the design of the Houston Majestic in 1923 that Eberson fully realized his atmospheric theater concept. His second atmospheric-style theater was the Palace Theater in Gary, Indiana.

In 1926, Eberson relocated to New York City, establishing an office at the Rodin Studios on West Fifty-seventh Street. By July 1929, he decided to close his Chicago office and consolidate all design work in New York. Around the same time, he officially brought his son, Drew Eberson, into the business as a partner, although Drew had already been involved in many projects.

Eberson gained national and international recognition for his atmospheric theaters, often featuring exotic revival styles such as the Italian Renaissance, Spanish Revival, and Moorish Revival. Some of his later designs, executed with his son Drew, were in the art deco and streamlined modern styles, such as the Lakewood Theater (1938) in Dallas, Texas, the Schines Auburn Theatre (1938) in Auburn, New York, and the Bethesda Theatre (1938) in Bethesda, Maryland.

John Eberson died on March 5, 1954, and his widow died in July of that same year. An estimated 500 buildings, including 100 atmospheric theaters, have been destroyed. Many fell victim to redevelopment efforts, as evolving tastes deemed the architectural style outdated. Additionally, the advent of television diminished the need for large single-auditorium theaters, with emerging business models favoring multiple smaller auditoriums on a single site to accommodate the simultaneous screening of multiple films instead of just one.

The Palace Theater
John Adolph Emil Eberson. c. 1912

Gary, Indiana’s Palace Theater

The Palace Theater was the second theater designed by Eberson using his atmospheric concept. The auditorium ceiling was painted blue to give the illusion of an open sky, and decorative elements were added to give visitors the illusion of being in a distant land.

The 2,500-seat theater opened in late November 1925 with Mayor William James Fulton and Captain H. S. Norton, an agent of the Gary Land Company, attending the dedication ceremony. The Palace Theater was built by Maximillian Dubois’ construction firm, Max and Sons, and commissioned by Charles J. Wolf and Vern U. Young of the Gary Theatre Company, which already owned two theaters in the city.

On its premiere evening, the stage came alive with five headline vaudeville acts preceding the screening of “The Only Thing” (1925), featuring Eleanor Boardman and Conrad Nagel. The organist Al Carney orchestrated the unveiling of the theater’s Kilgen Wonder Organ, built by George Kilgen & Sons, Inc. of St. Louis, Missouri.

Described as a “perfect illusion of a Spanish and Moorish garden under a beautiful star-lit sky, soothed with dreamy drifting clouds,” the auditorium’s ambiance captured hearts on opening night. Newspaper accounts marveled at its entrancing effect, that “one almost forgets to watch the show!

The Palace Theater
Interior of the Palace Theater. c. 1924
The Palace Theater
Interior of the Palace Theater in Gary, Indiana.

When the U.S. Steel plant declined, so did the rest of Gary. That included the Palace Theater. In 1968, 10th grader Aldrid Black was stabbed to death in the theater lobby after a showing of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The stabbing took place as he was leaving the theater when an older youth shoved him. A fight ensued, ending with the older youth plunging a knife into Black’s neck. In January 1972, a young lady was assaulted in the women’s restroom.

Shortly after the incident, the Palace Theater closed down because it had been losing money for over a year. At the time of its closure, many asked if the city of Gary was dying. The year-old Holiday Inn next to City Hall was partially closed as it wasn’t making money. The 10-story, 44-year-old Hotel Gary was vacant except for two small stores on the ground floor. A couple of blocks from the hotel was the Memorial Auditorium, which had been closed by the city’s school system.

Downtown store windows were boarded, and vacant lots dotted the downtown area. Metal gates and curtains protected many storefronts during non-business hours.

The Palace reopened three years later as the Star Palace Theater but closed down after the owner could not pay the heating or water bills. With the help of a government grant, the theater reopened a final time in 1976 as the Star Academy of Performing Arts and Sciences but was shuttered after funds from the grant ran out.

The Palace Theater
The Palace Theater following its closure in January 1972. The Times
A Symbol of Urban Decay

In 1987, private investors attempted to rehabilitate the area by renovating the theater and other nearby storefronts. Unfortunately, the plan was scrapped after the first restaurant opened, which proved unsuccessful.

When the Miss USA pageant was held in Gary in 2002, Donald Trump renovated the front of the theater with sheets of plywood. The plywood covering the windows was painted to depict a false interior and an external marquee read “Jackson Five Tonite” was mounted along the front. However, the Jackson Five never performed at the Palace. After Michael Jackson died in 2009, plastic signs reading “Jackson Five Forever” were added to both sides of the marquee, but they have since been lost to the wind.

In 1994, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing structure of the Gary City Center Historic District. The theater has become a symbol of urban decay alongside another historic landmark in Gary, City Methodist Church, and the rest of the city’s downtown. Many buildings in the surrounding area have been demolished in recent years, so there is no telling what the future holds for this once-lavish landmark.

The Palace Theater
1945 Sanborn Insurance Map for Gary, Indiana. Library of Congress
David Bulit

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10 days ago

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