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The North Park: Uncovering Neoclassicism in a Buffalo Theatre

The lights at the North Park theatre are all off, as traffic on Hertel avenue zips by. Part of a connected block long structure, at the heart of Buffalo’s Little Italy, the architecture of the theatre at once stands out amongst the darker brick of the adjoining buildings, but also seamlessly fits in.
In fact, because of the slightly towering parapet, you would not be able to tell there was a theatre if it was not for the newer marquee (added in the 1950’s), jutting over the sidewalk. Then the lights come on, just minutes before the show, the whole building comes to life in the bright yellow and red marquee lights, and this piece of Buffalo’s famed architectural history looks stunning and inviting.
Well, almost all of it, as some past renovations and improving cinema technology have covered some of the original features and beauty of the almost century old building.
The North Park was built as part of the Shea’s Theatre chain in 1920, which also included Shea’s Buffalo theatre, now known as Shea’s Performing Arts Center. Henry L. Spann served as the architect, and did the same for a number of other theatres in Buffalo. Designed in the popular Neoclassicism/Classical Revival movement, the building has some of the more noticeable trappings of the movement, including pilasters, a parapet, and a portico, and certainly not least of all the monumental proportions which are hidden to the people passing by on the street.
The Beaux Arts Classical Revival may have also had an influence on the design of this spacious theatre, evidenced by the rich, detailed friezes, and the centerpiece of the theatre’s ceiling, a 5-paneled recessed dome, painted by Raphael Beck, whose ornate decoration is more a signature of that particular movement, rather than the Neoclassicism of the overall building.
The average filmgoer can easily see the gorgeous dome in the ceiling, as well as the tall pilasters on the walls leading up to the curtained wooden stage and hanging screen. The screen and the stage are relatively new; the larger screen is required to show newer films, and as such, sits in front of the original screen. Behind the tall curtains on either side of the modern screen, the friezes on either side of the theatre proper continue, into the proscenium around the old screen, with even more detailed and beautiful work, from these periods. The colors, a subtle polychrome (another hallmark of the Beaux Arts influence) mix of red, gold, light blue and cream, are unexpected, but look wonderful even tucked behind scaffolding and curtains.
The proscenium, however, is not the only hidden feature of the theatre. At some point, in order to ease the burden of heavy heating bills, a dropped ceiling in the lobby was installed, covering up the original ceiling above the ticket booth. The front façade was blocked off as well, masking large stained glass windows facing the street, which finished off the magnificent portico entrance. The center window read “Shea’s North Park” across the face, and was flanked, appropriately, by the tragedy and comedy masks on either side.
“Are you afraid of heights?” asked Alice Eoannou, landlord of the North Park for the last two years along with her husband, while ascending the stairs to get a glimpse of the other side of the façade. On delicate beams, in between wires holding up the newer ceiling, the stained glass windows can be seen still intact, and are amazing in size alone, even viewed in reverse. Opposite the windows, just over the doors to the theatre proper, are three windows with fake, small balconies in front of them, completing the portico.
The original ceiling has friezes and trim to match the inside of the theatre, with matching polychrome, which appeared to be a touch richer in color, with the reds looking a little more intense. Soon any filmgoer will be able to take in the majesty of the stained glass windows first hand, as there are plans to take down the dropped ceiling, and restore the portico to its former glory.
“We just think that it’s a great feature and that it’s a shame that it’s covered up,” said Mrs. Eoannou. She explains that “it doesn’t enhance business, it doesn’t enhance value, it enhances the look of the building—I just think it should be done.” If everything proceeds in the right direction, the suspended ceiling could come down, and the restoration of the stained glass windows could be done as soon as June. “Hopefully by June or so. Hopefully,” she adds. Renovations, however, have just begun with the building.
The first “freshening up” as Mrs. Eoannou put it, happened with the ladies room, which included a sitting room and a fireplace restoration. “We’ll probably do some things with the men’s room, and the lobby, this year. Those are the two big projects,” she said. Big projects that come with a big price tag, but that does not seem to phase Mrs. Eoannou, who is not concerned so much with her return on the investment, but on the beauty of the building itself: “Most of the things we’re doing is because of the love of the architecture of the theatre, and we want to see things a certain way. There will be some projects, like the ceiling, just because we really like the way it looks. It should just be done.” After seeing first hand the uncovered architecture of this piece of Buffalo’s past, it is hard to disagree.

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