History of the Hollywood: Liebenberg and Kaplan – Masters of Movie Theater Design

Note: This post appears on our blog courtesy of Preservation Design Works. You can find the original post here.

Ryan Salmon and Greg Donofrio

Preservation Design Works has recently been working with Andrew Volna, a prospective developer on the Hollywood Theater, located at 2815 Johnson St. NE in Minneapolis. Recently, we have been preparing a Historic Preservation Certification Application determine the eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. In this post, I’m deviating from the chronological history of the theater that I have been describing in my previous three posts to focus on the architectural firm Liebenberg and Kaplan (L&K), the designers of the Hollywood Theater and many other notable movie theaters in the Upper Midwest. To those of you who have been pestering me to finish the chronological history of the Hollywood, rest assured that I will wrap it up soon! While researchingL&K, we have discovered that relatively little has been published about the firm, despite their prolific nature and widely appealing designs. Most notably, we haven’t been able to find any articles written about the firm while they were in practice. The information below is excerpted from the Historic Preservation Certification Application for the Hollywood Theater that we wrote.

historichollywood1935 photograph of the Hollywood Theater as it appeared following its construction. Photo source: Northwestern Architectural Archives.

Between 1923 and 1941, Liebenberg and Kaplan (L&K) designed over two-hundred theaters and prepared plans for the remodeling of roughly six-hundred theaters. These commissions were spread over six Midwestern states; many were located in small towns. Given their astounding productivity, it is surprising that no instances can be found of the firm’s work having received national publication or awards during its most prolific years between the 1930s and the 1950s. A critical reappraisal of the L&K’s buildings by art and architectural historians began in the 1980s, following Liebenberg’s retirement. This coincided with the rise of the historic preservation movement in the United States and was further propelled by growing concern about threats of demolition or insensitive alternation of L&K’s best commissions, especially as the economic viability of smaller neighborhood movie houses was being challenged by newer multiplex theaters located in the suburbs.

The majority of the theaters designed by L&K were in the Art Deco or Streamline Moderne styles.[1] Theaters designed by L&K are renowned for the high quality of their architecture, and their skillful designs of theaters for small sites. Art historian Herbert Scherer notes: “Architects like Jack Liebenberg adapted the sophisticated modern style of theater building, which came from Berlin and Paris and was transformed in New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, into something glamorous and appealing for all America to enjoy. Liebenberg sought to attract grass roots patrons in the Upper Midwest, for whom the epitome of architecture might be the local savings bank. He did so with ingenuity, grace, and speed, importing elements of cosmopolitan culture into a frontier community that was limited and provincial in outlook.”[2] L&K’s work is well documented in the extensive collection of its drawings and files preserved at the University of Minnesota’s Northwest Architectural Archives.

liebenbergJacob “Jack” Liebenberg. Photo source: Kenney, Twin Cities Picture Show.

Jacob “Jack” Liebenberg was born in 1893 in Milwaukee of German-Jewish parents. In 1916, he was a member of the first graduating class of the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture. While attending the University of Minnesota, Liebenberg formed an architectural fraternity and was the founder and president of the University Architectural Society. Upon graduation, he received the McKim Fellowship from Harvard University where he earned his master’s degree. While at Harvard, Liebenberg was awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome, however World War One prevented him from traveling to Europe to take advantage of the prize. Liebenberg served in the Army Air Corps for the war effort. Following the war, he returned to Minneapolis and worked briefly for D.C. Burnett and taught at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture. While teaching at the University of Minnesota, Liebenberg formed a brief partnership with Robert C. Martin, and shortly thereafter a much longer-lived business with his former student Seeman Kaplan. (They soon became brothers in law when Liebenberg married Kaplan’s sister Raleigh.) From 1923 on, the partnership was known as Liebernberg and Kaplan. It became one of the most successful and prolific architectural firms based in the Twin Cities. Kaplan primarily dealt with the business aspects of the firm, as well as engineering details until his death in 1963. Liebenberg was elected national president of the Society of American Registered Architects in 1972. When Liebenberg retired in 1980, L&K had the distinction of being the oldest Minneapolis architecture firm operated by the same individual.[3]

suburbangranadainteriorTop: the Granada Theater (1928) in Uptown Minneapolis was later renamed the Suburban World. Bottom: historic photograph of the Granada’s auditorium. Although the historic seating has been removed, the decorative wall and ceiling finishes remain today. Photo source: suburbanworld.com.

L&K designed a broad variety of building types, became renowned as theater architects, and more generally sought after as architectural acousticians. Before the Great Depression, the firm mostly designed large, single-family residences in the Colonial Revival Style. One notable example is the Mervyn H. Amsden House at 2388 Lake of the Isles Parkway West, described in the AIA Guide to TwinCities Architecture as otherwise typical of houses built in this area in the 1920s, except for it being the “largest example in Minneapolis.”[4] In 1923, the firm first entered the movie theater design business by remodeling the Arion Theater in Northeast Minneapolis (no longer extant). L&K’s big break came later in the decade when its design for the Temple Israel Synagogue (1928) in southeast Minneapolis caught the eyes of Twin Cities theater owners Rubenstein and Kaplan, who immediately commissioned the firm to design the Granada Theater (1928, now the Suburban World) in Minneapolis. Before construction on the Granada was completed, Finkelstein and Ruben, (a competing movie theater consortium) bought the theater from Rubenstein and Kaplan.[5]

The Granada was one of the first movie theaters in the Twin Cities designed and built to accommodate amplified sound. Recognizing that film acoustics was an architectural challenge, Liebenberg and Kaplan applied a new product to the theater’s rear walls called Celotex, an acoustical tile composed of sugar-cane waste bound with casein glue into which patterns of eighth-inch holes were drilled to enable the material to absorb sound. The treatment proved to be not only an effective sound-deadening strategy, but also a cost effective decorative wall covering, earning L&K a reputation as experts of architectural acoustics, which spurred many subsequent commissions for work on movie theaters.[6] Liebenberg and Kaplan utilized colored bands of Celotex to finish the walls and ceilings of the Hollywood Theater’s auditorium.[7]

avalonL&K designed a 1937 remodeling of the The Avalon Theater (1924) in south Minneapolis. The theater is now operated by the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater. Photo source: hobt.org.

L&K became the “house architects” for theater owners Finkelstein and Ruben, which were eventually bought out by the national franchise Paramount. Paramount continued to use L&K, often commissioning them to extensively remodel the theaters it owned in small towns throughout Minnesota and neighborhood states, which explains not only the firm’s prodigious output but also its wide geographic reach.[8] (It also explains why Liebenberg received and maintained architectural licenses in sixteen states).[9]

L&K became movie theater design specialists at an auspicious moment in time. During the Great Depression, the film industry was one of the few sectors of the economy that thrived.[10] L&K designed or remodeled many other movie theaters in the Twin Cities including the Wayzata (1932), the Edina (1934), the Uptown (1937), and the Varsity (1938).[11] The last indoor movie theater designed by L&K was the Terrace Theater (1951) in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, the first major suburban movie theater in the Twin Cities. The firm later designed several drive-in theaters, including the first to be built in Canada. Drawing on their reputation as architectural acousticians, L&K were commissioned to design the WCCO radio studio and KSTP television-station building in Minneapolis. In 1972, the firm L&K merged with another firm to form Liebenberg, Smiley and Glotter. Liebenberg retired from the firm in 1974, and continued to maintain a private practice until his death in 1985.[12]

terraceThe Terrace Theater (1951) in Robbinsdale, MN was the last indoor theater designed by L&K. Photo source: placeography.org

Theaters designed by Liebenberg and Kaplan eventually received high praise from art and architectural historians. Among the first was David Gebhard and Tom Martinson’s Architecture of Minnesota (1977), which, in describing the Hollywood Theater, noted: “It is amazing how many variations this firm was able to come up with while working within the Streamline Moderne Style of the 1930s. This one is more sharp and angular than most.”[13] Additional attention was raised by a 1982 exhibition at the University of Minnesota Gallery called “Marquee on Main Street: Jack Liebenberg’s Movie Theaters, 1928-1941,” which featured sixty-five of L&K’s theater designs curated by art history professor Herbert Scherer.[14] The Hollywood was then one of three Minneapolis theaters highlighted in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 1987 publication Great American Movie Theaters by David Naylor.[15] Writing about L&K’s Fargo Theater in North Dakota, Naylor praises it as “One of the most startlingly original Moderne auditorium spaces ever built…. Liebenberg’s experiment is probably unmatched in the United States for its boldly sweeping lines….”[16] Drawings of L&K’s 1939 Uptown Theater were later featured alongside projects by McKim, Mead and White; Edward Larrabee Barns; Ralph Rapson; and Frank Gehry in a 1996 exhibition at the Minneapolis Museum of Art.[17] Several of L&K’s theaters, including the Hollywood, are noted in Larry Millet’s AIA Guide to the Twin Cities.[18] Lastly, and perhaps most significant of all, Liebenberg and Kaplan’s theaters are placed in a broader historical and sociocultural context by Dave Kenney in his 2007 book Twin Cities Picture Show. Kenney notes that the 1951 Terrace Theater in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, which he describes as one of the first “ultramodern theaters in America,” was one of firm’s few projects that received national acclaim for its design during Liebenberg and Kaplan’s lifetimes.[19] Such documented acclaim substantiates L&K’s status as masters of movie theater architecture.

End Notes

[1] Lisa D. Schrenk, “The Atmospheric and Art Deco Theaters of Jack Liebenberg,” 32-36; “Liebenberg and Kaplan Papers: 1919-1969,” finding aid for the Northwestern Architectural Archives, accessed February 14, 2013, http://special.lib.umn.edu/findaid/xml/naa036.xml.

[2] Herbert Scherer, “Marquee on Main Street: Jack Liebenberg’s Movie Theaters: 1928-1941,”The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, Vol 1 (Spring, 1986), 68; Herbert Scherer, “Tickets to Fantasy: The Little Theater Around the Corner,” Hennepin County History 46 no. 3 and 4 (Fall 1987): 13; David Wood, “He Designed Cathedrals for the Cinema,” Minnesota(April 1982): 13-17.

[3] These biographical details are from David Wood, “He Designed Cathedrals for the Cinema,” Minnesota (April 1982): 13-17.

[4] Larry Millet, AIA Guide to the Twin Cities, (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007): 35.

[5] David Kenney, Twin Cities Picture Show (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007): 74-77.

[6] Scherer, “Tickets to Fantasy,” 12-13; Liebenberg may have been a local early adopter of Celotex for theater applications; for documentation of national use of the product, see: “Many Acousti-Celotex Sound Jobs for Theaters in Larger Towns, Too” Box Office Magazine; Movie Age 14 Dec. 1929: 18.

[7] Liebenberg and Kaplan Papers (N36 JF), Northwestern Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries, Minneapolis.

[8] Scherer, “Tickets to Fantasy,” 12-13.

[9] Wood, “He Designed Cathedrals for the Cinema,” 17.

[10] Kenney, Twin Cities Picture Show, 26; Wood, “He Designed Cathedrals for the Cinema,” 13-17.

[11] Kenney, Twin Cities Picture Show, 77, 81, 86, 88, 217-230; these theaters remain extant; dates indicate L&K design involvement, which may have involved remodeling, as opposed to initial design and construction.

[12] Ibid.

[13] David Gebhard and Tom Martinsen, A Guide to the Architecture of Minnesota(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977): 42.

[14] Herbert Scherer, Marquee on Main Street: Jack Liebenberg’s Movie Theaters, 1928-1941: March 22-April 25, 1982, University Gallery, University of Minnesota.

[15] David Naylor, Great American Movie Theaters (Washington DC: Preservation Press, 1987): 152.

[16] Ibid, 164.

[17] The exhibition was titled “The Twin Cities on Paper: A Center of Architectural Drawings for Minneapolis and St. Paul,” curated by Christopher Monkhouse; see Linda Mack, “New Curator Showcases Local Architects,” Star Tribune, 14 April 1996.

[18] Millet, AIA Guide to the Twin Cities, 107-108.

[19] Kenney, Twin Cities Picture Show, 117-120.

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