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The Bay, The Riverview and Louis Sullivan Too

The Bay Theater, like the downtown oasis of the Black Cat Coffee House, was one of many pleasant surprises in Ashland, Wisconsin.   Ashland sits on the Chequemagon Bay of Lake Superior, on the northern edge of Wisconsin.   Ashland proved to be a much more laid-back base for exploring the region than quaint, hillside Bayfield, about 20 miles north.  Aside from the town itself, we ventured out to the nearby Apostle Islands and then eastward into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a near-idyllic afternoon in the spectacular Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park.

The theater itself, aside from the great marquee and upright, is a pretty generic affair once you get indoors.   Once a single-screen house with a capacity of 650, it's now subdivided.   The lobby, once you step beyond some bold green and black vitriolite in the entryway, is sadly nondescript, as was the small auditorium in which we watched a film.   However, in returning from the concession stand mid-film, I did peek into an adjacent auditorium and see what looked like a charming old proscenium and some designs along a bare wall which looked like they may have dated from the original decorative scheme.    One likes to think of much of that original detail sitting largely intact beneath all the bland covering, waiting to be liberated.

The film du jour?   I was one of two men and about 15 women at the 7:30 screening of Eat, Pray, Love.  Sometimes, my friends, you have to suffer for your art.   Actually, the suffering was not nearly as acute as I had anticpated.   Ms. Roberts and a pretty strong cast acquit themselves pretty well.   It all goes down easy enough as long as you don't think about it too much.   


We arrived in northern Wisconsin by way of Duluth, Minnesota and the the Twin Cities.   In Minneapolis, we stopped by one of the most unique theaters I've run across in my many theater expeditions.   Imagine a theater interior designed by Heywood Wakefield.   Am I in heaven?, the mid-century enthusiast might reasonably ask.   Nope, you're in Minneapolis.   Welcome to the Riverview Theater.

Despite the Googie-ish flavor of its jutting marquee, the exterior of the Riverview gives one little indication of the mid-century magic to be found within.                                                 
The good people at the Riverview were kind enough to let me take some interior shots.   Actually, the kid at the ticket counter yelled to his boss, "DO YOU MIND IF SOME GUY TAKES PICTURES?"  Fortunately, some guy was allowed to do so and here are some of the results of his quick work.  


Pretty cool, huh?   I have found very little interesting middle ground between the great movie houses of the 30's and 40's - those houses usually of the smaller, more streamline variety after the palaces of the 1920's and early-30's - and the generally sterile cinderblock boxes of the 60's and 70's.   Aside from the Watson Theater (sadly, closed in September of 2009) in Watsontown, Pennsylvania, whose interior is a heady mix (as I remember) of 40's streamline design and a 50's-red palette, the Riverview is the only theater I've seen that is so distinctly mid-century.   Check it out if you find yourself in the Twin Cities.  
About 60 miles south of Minneapolis on US-14, not far east of Interstate 35, you will find the fairly vital small town of Owatonna, Minnesota.   At a time when commissions were few and far between, it was here that the great Louis Sullivan was hired to design a new Farmer's National Bank by that institution's president, Carl Bennett.   It's one of seven country banks, "jewel boxes," that Sullivan designed late in his career.   The first of the lot, the former Farmer's National, is apparently the grandest.   I've seen only one of the others, the People's Federal Savings and Loan Association.   That bank is exceedingly lovely; it was one of the happiest surprises of my traveling life to stumble upon it one afternoon in Sidney, Ohio.   But I wasn't quite prepared for Farmer's National (now a Wells Fargo).   It's a palace.   You can almost sense this great artist, with little or no outlet for his talent, lavishing it on this small town bank.  

The television over the teller booth is an unfortunate touch, but the woman to whom I spoke in the bank was very accomodating about allowing photos and directing us up to the viewing platform beneath the great arch and wall mural.  I kind of wanted to hide up there and stay the night. 

One of four "electroliers," by Sullivan's assistant,
George Elmslie. 
Frank Lloyd, crumudgeonly genius that he was,
was never quick to dispense compliments to fellow architects, but he always spoke of Sullivan, his former employer in the firm of Adler and Sullivan, in reverential terms, calling him "the master," or "the master builder."  In each man's work, there are touches of the other.   Here, a design feature frequently employed by Wright, the low ceiling of a passageway giving way to a fairly awe-inducing expanse of space and design.

Cartouche and terra cotta detail.


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