1326 W. Wisconsin Avenue,
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Didn’t every city have a VARSITY theatre somewhere near a local college or university? It would seem so if one consults any major listing of theatres, and Milwaukee was no exception. In this case, it was notable enough to generate an entire article with photos in the magazine: “Architectural Record” of September 1938, Vol. 84 #3, pages 51-54, unusual for a theatre in those days. The article about the place is brief: “MILWAUKEE: THREE-WAY AIR CONDITIONING IN TRIPLE USE STRUCTURE — Grassold and Johnson, Architects — Complete Air Conditioning of the Varsity Theater Building in Milwaukee, Wis., makes windows unnecessary; thus the function of the vertical glass-block panels is simply to admit daylight. Housed in this windowless structure are 5 stores and a 1,400-seat theater on the ground floor, and offices on the 3 upper floors. Because of the diversity of uses for which the building was designed, the heating and air-conditioning systems are laid out on an individual basis, but distribution of conditioned air is from a central point on the second floor. Eight rows of coils are used in the theater’s system and a continuous 3-in. grille in the ceiling cornice below the light troughs [white neon-lit coves] acts as a means of distribution. The stores are heated and cooled by individual units installed in the basement. The office portion of the building is divided into four zones and is supplied with conditioned air from the equipment room on the second floor. The building is steel-framed, with concrete floors and special ceiling arrangement in the office portion to accommodate duct work and piping [referring to the first generation of suspended plaster ceilings holding ducts and conduits for offices]. Exterior is of granite base construction with stone and face brick veneer.”
It is, however, the seven photos and two floor plans that really tell the story: the glass block mentioned is not merely flat to the surface, but is canted outward slightly so that the continuous two planes of each second floor to near-roofline panel is joined vertically by means of a bronze ornamental ‘rib’ mould rising from a double-tier, semicircular balconnete at the base, up to a tiny finial above the crowning accolade done in a flat, peaked curvilinear design. Each balconnete had up-lights hidden inside, which delineated the facade at night. About four feet above this was the parapet having a would-be cornice made up of a row of half-bullet shaped billets spaced below the slightly extended coping tiles. All 12 bays of the southerly facing facade were above the granite first floor having five large show windows for the stores, with narrow cornices of stainless steel blind grillework above them. Similar bands of stainless were used to trim the rounded corners of the entrances to the building and stores, with like stainless accolade ornaments as surdoors. Above the island box office at the sidewalk line, was a typical Poblocki Sign Co. “Alumilighted” triple level marquee, with skeleton neon channel letters at top spelling VARSITY, three levels of recessed fluorescent back-lit attraction boards, and a soffit of a continuous grille supporting milk white plastic panels above which were more fluorescent lamps, there being no incandescent bulbs in this then oh-so-modern building. The marquee saw its letters changed from the inside via a hidden door from the second floor corridor of the office bldg., not from the outside as was traditional — and unpleasant and dangerous in the icy winters.
The box office vestibule was paneled in fluted stainless upon which were mounted the poster frames, and communicated with the Ticket Lobby via four plate glass doors in heavy, plain wooden frames, duplicating the similar sets of doors from this small lobby into the Inner Lobby, a 40-foot-deep ramp up to the balcony staircase and on to the Foyer which was behind the four aisles indicated on the rear auditorium wall to the right. The carpeting in this outer area was a maze of concentric circles adjoined in an Art Deco motif, with a stainless baseboard and chair rail framing a dark color wainscot, with a metalized plaster wall moving in curves above that which curves were mirrored in the curves of the ceiling soffit along the wall containing the white neon cove light and vaunted air conditioning grille line, the main mass of the ceiling being without fixtures or other interruption, in that it was entirely an expanse of metalized ribbing.
Turning right and going east through one of the four sets of auditorium doors, one came upon a large rectangular room with the same carpeting as the Foyer, but with 1,400 dark fabric seats outlined in aluminum coping with simple, illuminated double flute end standards of curved-edge metal. The vast, unornamented ceiling was divided side-to-side by means of blind seams into panels of satin surfaced plaster having only four, 4-foot-diameter glass bowl fixtures at the sides. The real lighting here was as in the Inner Lobby and Foyer: continuous white neon tubing hidden inside coves forming the inner edge of the dropped plaster soffits on either side of the room, with these reducing to curved ends as they butted with the splays of the walls near the stage. The walls were divided vertically by means of simple 6-inch stainless strips into ten-foot-wide panels of whitish plaster, adorned each with four, 3-D horizontal stainless stars spaced equally, above the dark wainscot to the ceiling. The balcony fascia was three such stainless panels running the length, with a similar pipe railing atop. The soffit under the balcony had a dozen small circular glass bowl lights mounted flush. The stage was about a 30-feet-wide rectangle , but only about ten deep, with only a few lines of rigging behind the motorized curtain: a simple, unornamented velour of a light color with a darker satin valance, and a matching satin stripe maybe a foot deep near the bottom. The VARSITY was never intended to be more than a cinema, as the simple projection room at the top of the balcony made clear, and therefore it had no pipe organ, or even dressing rooms for the stage. The room to stage right did not even have a door to the stage, but only an outside one on the back wall, apparently for lawn maintenance or the like. It was the stage left side that had the ante room, outside door, and a basement entry. A streamlined-moderne Ladies room was off the lobby, and a Gent’s was in the basement below the lobby.
The VARSITY had always been only a block or two away from some of the buildings of Marquette University, a Jesuit college from the 1880s, with some 11,000 students today. Like all urban schools, it has always sought to dominate and exclude from its ‘territory’ any buildings not in harmony with its idea of ‘campus’ ethos and security. To this end, they bought the building and after it was last open to the public in 1976, formalized this purchase by renaming the building Holthusen Hall in 1983, after wangling a bequest on the death bed of a woman who was a member of the Salvation Army religious organization, according to her admittedly Catholic Jesuit attorney in a lengthy write-up in the “Milwaukee Journal” of Sunday, February 3rd, 1985, page 1 (and page 8), part 1, titled: “MU woos, gets big bequest”. The 2.1 million dollar estate bequest was “unrestricted” according to a priest named Raynor, then president of the school. Another priest by the name of Biever, then a funds-raiser for the school, said that Raynor visited Violet Holthusen frequently at her nursing home death bed and declared: “‘It has come to Father Raynor’s attention that there was a couple [including her husband, Henry, shortly to be deceased before his wife] who were potential donors to the university.’ Biever recalled. ‘In university philanthropy, as in any philanthropy, you are always on the lookout for anyone who might be able to help your operation’”. While the widow Holthusen may not have entirely dreamed of leaving anything to the Catholic school (her first registered will left the bulk of her estate to relatives, the Optimists Club, the Humane Society, and the Salvation Army, which omissions in the subsequent will caused protests and probate), it may have been the saving grace for the former VARSITY, for it was thereafter renamed Holthusen Hall with the auditorium serving for student lectures, as well as a private films program over the years; the offices becoming school offices. The school promptly converted the small first floor stores into their school book store, but later covered the plate glass windows with slabs of pre-cast brown aggregate-faced concrete, later pierced with new narrow windows. Likewise, the classic glass block panels on the floors above were eventually removed and replaced with solar glass sheets in brown aluminum frames, now openable to the breeze. Of course, the marquee was shorn from the building, the scar of which was covered by a flat, milk glass-like frame with two rows of letters acting as the new age Announcement/Attraction board. The box office was removed, and a new line of aluminum doors in a silver color were placed at the sidewalk line. There is no decorative lighting anymore, but at least they have done little to modify the theatre, and so the VARSITY in its new incarnation is still with us to this day.
By James H. (Jim) Rankin, , June 2004
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