WC History: The Block of Art Deco
May 27, 2015 | Malcolm Johnstone
IMAGE: The last known picture of the Warner Theatre marquee, circa 1980.
Since 1762, when Phineas Eachus opened West Chester's first commercial business -- The Turks Head Tavern which offered weary travelers a room, a meal, and enough grog to insure a good night's sleep -- West Chester has been a place of refreshment for visitors. By the 1800's, the borough sported more than a dozen hotels in the downtown area. But that number began to dwindle until the grandest and last hotel, the Mansion House, closed in 1970 after 139 years of offering hospitality. West Chester continued without a hotel until Brian McFadden, a local developer and owner of lodging establishments down the shore, adapted the old Warner Theater into an up-scale hotel at 120 North High Street. The Warner Theater found new life as the Hotel Warner.
Most of the High Street block where the Warner stands departs from the architecture found in other parts of downtown. That's primarily because a shallow underground spring limited development to mostly corrals and stables until 1930. It was then that Warner Bros. Pictures saw West Chester as an ideal community for a grand theater that could seat up to 1,600 movie goers. They hired the architect firm of Rapp & Rapp of Chicago, who designed theaters throughout the country. The architecture that was currently all the rage at that time was Art Deco, a French import. It was considered completely modern and allowed plenty of room for lavish ornamentation. The theater needed to be more than just a place for movie date, and the large auditorium, fitted out with the newest film and sound equipment able to present grand Hollywood musicals, became the showplace of Chester County.
Styles and technology eventually changed, and by 1980 the theater closed and the auditorium was demolished to become a parking lot. Fortunately, the lobby and shops remained.
IMAGE: Detail of the lobby facade of the Hotel Warner. Note the bas-relief panel, an ornamental feature of Art Deco.
When the Hotel Warner opened in 2012, the structure was given a new life. The lobby of the theatre is now the lobby of the hotel. The staircase leading to the second floor still remains in its original elegance. The 80 rooms of the hotel are newly constructed where the theatre auditorium once was and the Art Deco architecture is perfectly matched.
IMAGE: Across the street, you can also find Art Deco echoed by the Greentree Building, built about the same time as the Warner. The difference is that the original construction of the facade did not hold up. Fortunately, the new owners, part of the Eli Kahn Development Corporation, has not only restored, but refurbished the entire facade to the elegance it deserves.