Arabia Theater

2600 N. 3rd Street,
Milwaukee, WI 53212

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Normally one lists only currently operating or former movie theaters on this site, but perhaps I will be permitted to list one of great imagination which, unfortunately, never got beyond the ‘hole-in-the-ground’ stage.

The ARABIA in Milwaukee was to be a large and imaginative Middle Eastern themed house of 2,500 seats, but the full blueprints are not known to exist, aside from the facade rendering that appeared in "Wisconsin News" (Milwaukee) of Saturday, Dec. 11, 1926 which reveals an impressive design by local architects Wolff & Ramsthall. The rendering displays a four story high by five bay wide expanse of ashlar brick divided by terra cotta pilasters topped at the coping line with onion domes having four foot high rod-and-ball finials. The two flanking bays on each end had storefronts at ground level and these four flanked the center bay which sported the theatre’s entrance.

Above the island box office flanked by four glass doors and poster cases, was a standard marquee (such a design would have been the province of the sign contractor) and above it on the balcony promenade level were three lancet windows with center mullions forming three lights in each. This same floor level had similar lancet windows topped with mosaic tile insets in the four flanking bays.

The next floor level featured three lozenge-shaped windows subdivided into quarrels, and this repeated on the four flanking bays. The fourth floor level featured tall, rectangular windows covered by a grillework or muntination of a diagonal lattice design and the three doubled windows of the center bay topped by a rectangular spandrel of faience tiles in form of soldier-set bricks with a running molding above them, this repeated in double window units in the four flanking bays. The coping of the parapet above is a line of triangular blocks set above a dentil course.

What sets the center bay apart from the flanking four bays is the use of triple clustered columns at grade level, banded at foot, polished at shank, and crowned by capitols of camel’s heads at the third floor level which support balconnets which form the bases of minarets which rise in rectangular proportions to other balconnets supporting a four-posted archway on each that is capped with a dome and rod finials having orbs at peak. All four balconnets on the two minarets have a doorway above them, which was no doubt intended to be lighted at night. The minarets are covered in faience tiles in a lozenge pattern, and rise to a total height of about 15 feet above the coping. Between the two minarets and on the roofline directly above the enrichments of the center bay, rises the great onion dome done in stripes of tile, having a cinched ‘waist’ at its base and culminated in a rod spire which skewers two orbs (of gold metal or glass?). The great dome appears to be about 30-feet wide; the flanking domes on the minarets, about 6-feet wide.

Perhaps we should let the newspaper’s short article speak for that which we would have loved to have in the world of theaters:

"THE ARABIA THEATER" "Plans for the Arabia theater development on Third St., just south of Center [St., about four miles north of downtown], were made public by Wolff & Ramsthall, architects, Strauss Bldg. [downtown]. The Arabia is to be operated as a unit of the Universal chain. Work on plans for the new theater is nearing completion in the Wolff & Ramsthall studios. The sketches call for a building designed to represent an Arabian castle, worked out in Bedford stone and tile in four colors. The lobby will reproduce Eastern architectural motifs, developed in brick paneling, while a feature of the interior of the theater itself will be logs covered with gaily colored Arabian tents, with a wall background painted to convey the impression of desert scenes. The theater will seat approximately 2,500 and will have stage equipment for the largest scale productions and presentations."

While some may call this simply part of "never-built-Milwaukee," I prefer to think of it as evidence of a ‘magic carpet’ of the imagination that would have carried one far to dream lands of storied shores. Milwaukee’s Oriental and Egyptian theaters did contain some of these motifs, but something tells me that this would have been a rare achievement in this theme, and therefore a great loss to posterity.

Contributed by James H.(Jim) Rankin

Recent comments (view all 6 comments)

JimRankin
JimRankin on April 13, 2004 at 11:03 am

Please let me know if you learn anything more about this theatre. Thank You. Jim Rankin =

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on March 21, 2009 at 4:17 pm

Google won’t map N. 3rd, keeps changing it to South 3rd, which is a residential area. I guess it’s a moot point if the theater was never built.

Silicon Sam
Silicon Sam on March 21, 2009 at 5:00 pm

I removed the ZIP code from the link, it appears to be working for me. Try THIS one.

Silicon Sam
Silicon Sam on March 21, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Or change to 53212.

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on March 21, 2009 at 5:29 pm

I actually plugged in Center Street and then followed it over to 3rd. The introduction says Third just south of Center.

Silicon Sam
Silicon Sam on March 21, 2009 at 5:36 pm

The corner of Center and 3rd is where the 2700 block starts. So I suppose it was somewhere in the 2600-2699 block, not necessarily 2600 itself. Looks like one side of the street is newer development than the other.

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