A landmark in the heart of Portland’s Arts District is going retro with the restoration of the State Theatre’s marquee getting underway this month.

Architects, using photos of the marquee from the 1930s that document its original appearance, plan to restore the light bulbs that used to adorn the marquee’s panels so that it again will be illuminated at night, as it used to be when the State Theatre opened nearly 90 years ago. The only change to the original design will be light panels on the side to announce upcoming shows.

“The heart of the Arts District will soon harken back to an exciting time in Portland’s history,” city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said in a statement. “As it once was, the State Theatre marquee will again be a beacon at the crossroads of Congress and High streets.”

The marquee was removed Wednesday so that the work could begin.

The State Theatre sign is taken down Tuesday. Portland provided a $6,000 facade program grant for the project. Photo courtesy of city of Portland

The State Theatre is Portland’s only surviving movie palace from the early 20th century, Grondin said. It opened at 609 Congress Street as a private movie theater in 1929 and has since undergone several ownership and use changes, including a stint in the 1970s and 1980s when it showed X-rated adult films.

Another Congress Street theater, in that same block of buildings, the Fine Arts Theater – formerly known as the Capitol Theatre – closed in the 1970s and was later demolished.

The State Theatre was renovated in the early 1990s for use as a performing arts space, but a series of operators were unable to make a profitable go of the space and it closed in 2006. It reopened in 2010 with a sold-out show by My Morning Jacket after undergoing a $1.5 million renovation as a concert and music venue that included new seats, new paint, new plaster, new carpets, lights and sound equipment. It has the capacity to seat close to 1,500 people.

“The marquees of this period (1930s) were intended to telegraph the excitement and drama associated with early movie palaces. One theater historian called them ‘electric tiaras,’ ” said Deb Andrews, Portland’s historic preservation manager.

When the State Theatre opened in 1929 it featured a 42-by-60-inch seamless projection screen and a $25,000 Wurlitzer organ. The theater played some of the first talkies and silent films in Maine, Andrews said.

The State Theatre at Congress and High streets in Portland is shown in 1930, shortly after it opened in 1929. The light bulbs that adorned the marquee will be restored so that it again will be lit up at night. Photo courtesy City of Portland

Grondin said project architect, Scott Simons of Portland, worked closely with Portland’s Historic Preservation Board to ensure “a faithful reconstruction of the marquee on this designated local landmark.”

Portland provided a $6,000 facade program grant for the marquee project, which is being matched with more than $77,000, including a donation from the State Theatre owners and operators, Alex Crothers and The Bowery Presents, Grondin said.

“Theater marquees dot the landscape of nearly every main street in America,” Crothers said. “They’re a beacon that tells you this is a vibrant community that cares about arts, culture and history. When I started working on reopening the State Theatre in 2005, I knew restor ing the marquee was a critical component of that process. Now, with the help of the city, we’re able to finally embark on restoring the only remaining historic marquee in Portland.”

The city’s contribution is funded by the Community Development Block Grant that it receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“(This is) a great example of a public-private partnership,” said Nelle Hanig, who manages the city’s facade program. “The building owners, theater operators and the city were all in harmony on the importance of the State Theatre entrance reclaiming its grandeur.”

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: