Puerto Rico Theatre

2917 N. Holton Street,
Milwaukee, WI 53212

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LouRugani on April 14, 2019 at 8:34 pm

The “other” Grand Theater (Bobby Tanzilo, May 9, 2017) Long before the palatial Warner Theater was recast as The Grand in 1982, there was the considerably less opulent and spacious Grand Theatre at 2917-23 N. Holton St., where the Harambee/Riverwest neighborhoods meet. This one was built in 1911. (Trainspotters will also note there was yet another Grand Theater that operated briefly, only from 1904 to 1909, at 738 N. 3rd St. Still another was in South Milwaukee.) Thanks to a foreclosure, the 6,846-square foot Spanish Colonial-style building, which long housed a church, is now in the City of Milwaukee’s commercial real estate portfolio and could be yours for a cool $20,000. Designed by architect John Roth Jr. – who also designed the smaller, 600-seat Aurora at the same time – construction on the 760-seat theater began in December 1911 and it had a long run, showing films until it closed in 1975. City permits suggest it was enlarged in 1922 to accommodate 850 movie-goers. In 1928, architect A. L. Seidenschwartz remodeled the theater in the atmospheric style, meaning he made the theater space itself appear to be outside, with the addition of clouds and stars and a bit of Mediterranean-style tile roof hints. Permits show that the ceiling was raised, roof trusses added and the exterior altered. In 1946, some seats were removed to make room for the construction of a candy stand. According to Larry Widen, co-author of the fine book, “Silver Screens: A Pictorial History of Milwaukee’s Movie Theaters,” “They tried some adult films and some art films but both ventures were short lived.” Some have suggested it may have operated for a time, later in its life, as Puerto (or Porto) Rico (and, briefly, at the very end as the Magik Grand Cine). Local history buff Carl Swanson wrote a good history of the theater here; I will merely summarize that here and encourage you to visit Carl’s site.

Built just a few years after the dawn of dedicated movie houses in Milwaukee, the Grand really is, as the DCD sell sheet notes, one of the oldest cinemas in the city. And, as a smaller neighborhood theater, it hearkens back to a time when Milwaukeeans could walk around the corner to see the latest films, seated among their neighbors, rather than driving to a movie mall somewhere in the suburbs and watching anonymously. But as that era ended, the theater went into decline – the porn matinees are a clear sign of that – and ultimately closed, replaced by the Church of the Philippians. In 2007, Haven of Hope Ministries bought the building and occupied it until 2015. It’s unclear which of the two churches built the block of rooms that now occupy the back-center portion of the auditorium, but Haven of Hope must have expected to stay longer than it did. Architectural plans hanging inside show an expansion plan onto the vacant lot to the north.

Heading inside, I was unprepared for just how intact the former Grand is as a theater. Step inside the lobby and there is earth-toned floor tile, exposed beam ceilings with elaborate painted detail that is almost entirely intact. A series of decorative hanging light fixtures remains, too. Solomonic columns and a quartet of medallions are painted gold and there’s still more decoration here above the doors, above the mirrors on either side of the lobby. There’s also wrought iron radiator grates.

Though the movie poster cases are bricked up on the exterior, their access doors remain in the lobby, which is flanked by men’s and women’s rooms that, in large part, maintain their vintage floor and wall tile. A door in the women’s room has a lot of graffiti etched into it.

A narrow bent staircase leads up to the projection room (pictured above), which appears to have the original footprint, though all but one of the openings out into the theater have been dry-walled over.

Step through the padded, studded doors into the auditorium and you’re transported back in time (if you ignore that block of rooms that surely could easily be removed … hand me a sledgehammer and I’ll start).

Rows of theater seats have been replaced with wooden pews, but the proscenium that conjures a Spanish plaza still stands. A series of niches can be found on each side wall. At the back is a strip of Mediterranean roof tile, again suggesting we’re outside.

Follow the north gangway and you’ll find a tight, steep metal staircase up to a space behind the three arched openings in the proscenium. Up here is the remnant of a piano. If The Grand had an organ, the pipes were likely up here.

I couldn’t find a staircase off the south gangway up to a space on the opposite side of the proscenium, but window openings facing the alley out back suggest there is a similar space up there, though the access may have been closed off. Beneath the stage and running along the back was a narrow space with stairs up to the stage itself. It’s too tight to have been a useful dressing room or orchestra pit, I’d think, so perhaps it was simply a means of access from behind, or it led to the basement. For someone with the means – or handyman skills – the idea of returning The Grand to use as a theater – be it films, be it live theater, be it concerts – doesn’t seem at all far-fetched.

The Department of City Development is accepting proposals (and offers) for the building until 3 p.m. on June 30.

Some of the permitted uses as listed on the sell sheet are “community center, food bank, restaurant/café, office, artist studio, live/work unit, dance studio, etc.”

Restoration of the building and façade are required in all proposals, but note that grants for the facade and renovation are potentially available and the DCD has access to other financial resources, too. The theatre includes the vacant lot to the north, bringing the square footage of the land to 8,314.

Trolleyguy on May 8, 2017 at 8:28 am

I also don’t believe that photo is of the Grand. Look at the current pictures and you will see the mounts for chains to support an over the sidewalk marquee.

mts61073 on May 6, 2017 at 8:45 pm

I I do not believe the photo from 1944 is the Grand on Holton St. there is no ally on the south side of the building and the window configuration do not match as well as the building surface and marquee. Looking for someone else to substantiate my thoughts.

DavidZornig on May 6, 2017 at 7:31 pm

Article about the Grand, with a photo from 1944 as well as current interior shots.


CarlS on May 28, 2015 at 12:52 pm

This theater was the subject of the following blog post, which includes additional interior images. http://milwaukeenotebook.com/2015/04/24/grand-theater/

mts61073 on March 26, 2015 at 8:08 pm

Great pics Sean thanks so much for sharing. I shared them with my RiverWest group for all to enjoy. If anyone has pics of this theatre from the sixties please share.

d0nut on March 26, 2015 at 7:44 pm

The former Grand is currently a closed/abandoned that is listed for sale. I went through it on March 23rd 2015 and shot the pictures in the attached Facebook album.


mts61073 on April 14, 2013 at 8:05 pm

Thank you Chuck, I was unsure how to create a link. Hope you liked the photo. It was from a slide collection of Mr. Backes who owned the food store next to the drug store. His daughter Terri shared this photo with our River West Face Book group.

mts61073 on April 14, 2013 at 1:58 pm

If you are having trouble viewing this photo, highlight the entire address then right click and hit “open link in new window”

mts61073 on April 14, 2013 at 1:54 pm

This photo is from 1957 and includes the Grand Theatre’s Marquee https://sphotos-b.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn1/551403_4787670693294_130984069_n.jpg

Patsy on August 15, 2010 at 10:29 am

Chuck: Pleased to read that the tassle collection went to THSA.

Patsy on August 15, 2010 at 9:28 am

Jim Rankin. He was a treasure on Cinema Treasures and I wish we had more like members like him. I had no idea that you were that close to him and that you shared many phone calls along with emails and CT posts. I also didn’t know that he collected tassles from theatre curtains. I wonder where that collection is today? The THSA should acquire it. Are you a THSA member? I plan to join as their magazine, Marquee is a treasure!

Matthew Prigge
Matthew Prigge on August 14, 2010 at 7:57 pm

The theatre ran its last film in mid-1971 as near as I can tell. during the last year it was open, it was known as the Magik Grand, and showed old classics and experimental films, as well as a steady diet of adult features. At one point, its ads boasted that it was “Milwaukee’s Matinee Adult Theatre,” showing porn from noon until 6 or 7 pm. I didn’t find anything that ever refered to it as the Puerto Rico.

kencmcintyre on June 14, 2008 at 3:57 pm

Click on “map” after the address at the top of the page. When you see the photo on the map page, the theater is to the right.

Patsy on June 14, 2008 at 3:51 pm

ken mc: What is the exact map link address to view this “interesting looking building”?

kencmcintyre on June 14, 2008 at 1:40 pm

You can see the former Grand Theater on Holton per Google maps. It’s an interesting looking building.

Patsy on February 6, 2007 at 4:47 am

This site has many Jim Rankin posts and it makes me stop and pause as I think of our wonderful CT friend whom we shall all remember with great respect and fondness.

atmos on February 6, 2007 at 12:06 am

Listed as Phillipian Church of God and Christ.

JimRankin on April 6, 2006 at 9:15 am

Actually there were 4 GRANDs, but only the two mentioned still stand. There will be a listing of all Milw. movie houses in the reprint of “Milw. Movie Palaces” due out next September under the title “SILVER SCREENS” by Larry Widen, and likely available through amazon.com at that time.

JimRankin on April 6, 2006 at 6:51 am

It was nice of “Lost Memory” to link to a photo of the GRAND, but it is the WRONG Grand. His photo is of Milwaukee’s WARNER/GRAND ( /theaters/1903/ ). This confusion of names is to be expected, even though the two buildings could never be confused! This is also why I disapprove of reusing theatre names within the same city, but then, who asked me?

Bigeyes on December 17, 2005 at 12:15 pm

I spent many a Sunday afternoon at The Old Grand in the middle 40s.
Always two movies, a couple cartoons, a news reel and always a serial of Buck Rogers or some cowboy favorite.
For just a Quarter, all this and candy and popcorn too.

What a great country.
God Bless America

Ralph S.
An Old Man In Arizona

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on January 10, 2005 at 10:02 am

Thanks for posting a most interesting account on the history of the building.

JimRankin on January 10, 2005 at 9:47 am

Milwaukee architect John Roth Jr. was engaged to design a modest 790 seat movie house in 1911 for one Andrew Guttenberg. The building’s pre-1930 address was 1175 Holton St. and was a brick building of 36x140 ft., with wooden floor and roof and seating for 696 according to the city’s inspection report the following year. The boiler room steam heated the building from beneath the stage platform, but there was never a stagehouse. It was a typical box beams and pilasters decor with modest draperies at the doorways to the two aisles, but the Inspector ordered them removed as a potential hazard for fleeing patrons. There were three ceiling ventilators and two floor vents to accommodate the summer heat, but this structure was long before air cooling.

In 1927 the local architect A.L. Seidenschwartz was contracted to turn the then no longer competitive neighborhood cinema into an ‘atmospheric’ or stars-and-clouds design which he did in a most imaginative way, as displayed on the microfilmed blueprints kept at the city’s records center. A new concrete floor replaced the wood, and illuminated glass urns topped the new facade line along the side walls but only inches from the wall with a line of blue horizon lights behind to cast upon the new dark blue plaster vault of a sky. There may have been electric ‘stars’ in the ceiling, but one cannot be sure today after years of rain damaged the ceiling before the place was bought by the Church of the Philippians who run it to this day. They had to make extensive remodelings and repairs, including a new alter wall built over the original screen, but some of the ornament remains. The facade was also completely redesigned in 1927 and one can still see elements of the stepped gable front, with the church’s more modern adaptations to the street level doors and former island box office. A modest, shallow lobby contains some ceramic tiles for decor as well as some antique lanterns of light bulbs suspended from the ceiling. The neighborhood is not prosperous, so one can only hope that this remnant of the city’s six ‘atmopherics’ will remain long enough to someday be restored to its charming second birth.