In Search of Historic Colours: The Empress Theatre Marquee

The historic downtown of Fort Macleod, one of two Provincial Historic Areas in the province, is well known for its impressive commercial buildings of brick and sandstone masonry. Collectively, these Classical Revival buildings exemplify an Edwardian commercial streetscape just prior to the First World War.

One of the main street’s crown jewels is the Empress Theatre, an elegant brick building with decorative sandstone details built in 1912. Historically a hub of the town’s social life, the theatre hosted plays, vaudeville acts and performers from Alberta, across North America and even overseas, as graffiti preserved in the original basement dressing rooms attests to this day. The original façade was theatrical in its own right and featured a grand arched entrance and recessed box office. As tastes changed and motion pictures grew in popularity, the original entry was enclosed to provide a lobby and concession, the auditorium was renovated with plush upholstered seats in the Art Deco style and neon tulips mounted on the ceiling, and a bold new neon sign and marquee replaced the original blade sign on the front facade. These 1930s and 1950s renovations added layers of architectural history and significance to the building and contributed to its designation as a Provincial Historic Resource in 1982.

The Empress Theatre in April 2016 (top). Bottom from left: View west along 24 Street in 1953, Glenbow Archives photograph NA-5600-6653 (cropped slightly from original); detail of 1953 streetscape showing the Empress marquee in essentially its present form; historic colours exposed on a blade sign letter; a plywood mock-up to evaluate proposed blade sign colours.

The Town of Fort Macleod owns the theatre and has embarked on an extensive rehabilitation project that includes rehabilitation of the historic neon marquee. The marquee was refurbished in the late 1980s by Fort Macleod’s Main Street Project but a generation of exposure to the elements has taken its toll on the galvanized sheet metal, paint, and fragile neon tubing. Removal of the signs for other façade repairs was an ideal opportunity to re-examine and document the marquee’s colour history.

To do this, fine sandpaper was used to create “paint craters” of exposed early paint layers on various portions of the sign. Surprisingly, a veritable rainbow of black, white, red, yellow, and even orange emerged from the sides of the projecting sheet metal letters on the blade sign, while other parts of both the upper and lower marquee signs revealed various shades of brown, orange and other trace colours. Vivid as they are, though, spot samples don’t necessarily indicate the actual colour scheme, or combinations of colours, that prevailed during a particular period. For more information, we then need to look to historic photographs.

Early photographs from 1912 and the 1920s show the theatre with its original sign. Later photographs are views of the overall street but the images’ amazing detail is such that the theatre marquee is actually clearly visible on close inspection. By 1930, the current neon marquee replaces the original blade sign, possibly as an upgrade to the latest sign technology, but with bold dark letters against a contrasting light-coloured background. In a 1953 photograph (see image above), the curved lower sign familiar to us today joins the blade sign along with another neon sign, faintly visible just above the entrance, reading “Air Conditioned” – an important new amenity enjoyed by moviegoers in the 1950s (remarkably, this old sign, absent from the facade for many years, was rediscovered in a local storage vault just weeks ago). It was at this time that the colour scheme reversed to light letters on a dark background with a slightly lighter – perhaps orange? – edges on the blade sign. Interestingly, the paint record gives no hint of the sign’s early 1930s appearance, suggesting the sheet metal “can” had at some point been stripped for repainting.

What to do? Canada’s conservation framework as laid out in the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places provides three conservation approaches: preservation, restoration, and rehabilitation. A preservation treatment maintains things essentially as they are and is foundational to all conservation work. It’s a preferred treatment since minimal intervention generally means less potential impact to heritage value. For the marquee, leaving the colours unchanged was a valid option, but evidence of earlier colour schemes invited an exploration into alternatives. Restoring the 1950s appearance is an enticing option but, without a colour photograph to decipher the paint samples, the evidence was too inconclusive to a strict restoration approach.  As a result, the currently preferred approach is a rehabilitation treatment that is compatible with the building’s heritage character but stops short of purporting to recreate the mid-1950s marquee. In this approach, individual colors actually found on the marquee are combined in a way that, while not necessarily historic in their specific combination, are nonetheless consistent with the available evidence and work well together for a bold and effective sign.

The current plan is for bright yellow letters on a dark brown sign with orange edges – essentially, a slightly more colourful version of the marquee familiar to many of us from recent years. These colours are all well represented in the paint record on their respective areas of the sign – we just can’t be sure that they coexisted historically. A painted plywood mock-up has been built to evaluate the colours in three dimensions against the building and under varied lighting conditions. In keeping with good conservation practice and the principle of minimal intervention, repainting of the marquee will leave the underlying paint intact, as a physical record of the building’s history and potential resource future conservators may use, with the aid of new evidence, in a future restoration. If readers of this blog have old photographs of the theatre, please contact the Town of Fort Macleod!

Written by: Fraser Shaw (Heritage Conservation Adviser)

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