Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar. Part 333 – J. B. McElfatrick & Sons, Theatre Architects

Part 333: J. B. McElfatrick & Sons, Theatre Architects

The architectural firm of J. B. McElfatrick & Sons was chiefly known for its theater designs. By 1896, the company advertised that they were responsible for the design and construction of seventy-one theaters in New York, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Washington and Texas. They also designed theaters in Canada. Started by John Bailey McElfatrick, his two sons soon joined the business. John Morgan McElfatrick (1853-1891) and William H. McElfatrick (1854-1922) became architects to establish J. B. McElfatrick & Sons. John passed away in 1891, but his brother William continued as an architect throughout the remainder of his life, continuing the family business after his father passed away.

Advertisement for J. B. McElfatrick & Son, Architects, from Julius Cahn’s Official Theatre Guide, 1896.

J. B. McElfatrick (1826-1906) is credited with designing over one hundred theaters throughout the course of his career, changing the audience expectations of the physical structures. Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he studied architecture and engineering with his own father Edward McElfatrick. By 1851, J. B. soon started his own architecture business in Harrisburg, and then established his business in Philadelphia. From there, he continued to journey west, opening offices wherever he moved  – Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago, and St. Louis. He finally returned to New York where he ran the main firm.

He focus on theater design began in approximately 1855. It was a subject that would remain his specialty throughout his career. Architectural historians cite his innovations concerning auditorium seating and the implementation of ground-floor performance venues. In the 1917 publication, “Modern Theatre Construction,” Edward B. Kinsila wrote, “The greatest individual strides in American theatre construction have been effected through the personal endeavors of a single architect, Mr. J. B. McElfatrick of New York City, who should be revered as the Father of American theatres.”

Kinsila’s publication describes that in the 1880s American theaters were designed and constructed in a similar manner to their English prototypes; specifically, they shared a comparable subdivision of main floor seating. The American use of “parquet” and “parquet circles” were the equivalent to the English use of “pit” and “stalls.” He notes that they both shared the “same lyre-shaped balcony, the same stage projection or apron, and the same extravagant and distracting ornamentation.” McElfatrick, is also credited with improving the sight lines by arranging continuous front-to-back seating on the main floor, without aisles. He also designed balconies that were flatter and deeper. I am fascinated with his front-of-house innovations, but curious about how his designs affected the backstage areas. We only catch a glimpse of his alteration to the front of the stage.

He greatly reduced  the “projecting apron,” a common nineteenth-century stage feature. The projecting apron was at the forefront of the stage, and from a time when much of the scenery remained primarily decorative, placed behind the actors to suggest locale. This was part of the wing and shutter system that also incorporated roll drops. Once the painted shutters were opened to reveal a scene, the actors moved forward (downstage) to play the scene, allowing the background to change behind them while they continued the performance. For me, this is interesting timing. That I would get to this point in my blog as the wing/shutter/roll drop system has been part of my weekly, and sometimes daily, discussions with Rick Boychuk since last November after we examined the 1906 Matthews Opera House. 1906 was also the same year that J. B. McElfatrick passed away in New York.

The projecting apron was at the forefront of the stage, and from a time when much of the scenery remained primarily decorative, placed behind the actors to suggest locale. This was part of the wing and shutter system that also incorporated roll drops. Once the painted shutters were opened to reveal a scene, the actors moved forward (downstage) to play the scene, allowing the background to change behind them while they continued the performance. For me, this is interesting timing. That I would get to this point in my blog as the wing/shutter/roll drop system has been part of my weekly, and sometimes daily, discussions with Rick Boychuk since last November after we examined the 1906 Matthews Opera House. 1906 was also the same year that J. B. McElfatrick passed away in New York.

In terms of another significant characteristic of McElfatrick’s theater designs was the placement of the theatre on the first floor. Often his renovated or newly constructed theaters were the first in an area to place the entertainment venue on the ground level. He also included multiple exits, sprinkler systems, and improved dressing rooms. As I surveyed newspaper reviews of his buildings, I noticed that many of his theatre designs lowered the stage floor and constructed a raked floor for the auditorium seating. Furthermore, a secondary floor to place over stationary auditorium seating was also another feature that McElfatrick used. This transformed the space into one long banquet hall that extended the entire length of the room that continued onto the stage.

William H. McElfatrick, of the architectural firm J. B. McElfatrick & Son

William McElfatrick initially studied architecture in his father’s office, but moved to Chicago after the 1871 fire. There he joined the firm of W. W. Boyington, as work was so plentiful and presented great opportunities for a young architect to make his mark. He returned to New York in the 1880s and began working with his father again. From the mid-1880s until his father’s passing in 1906, the firm was incredibly productive. In Canada, William H. McElfatrick and his father designed theatre buildings in Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec.

What I found fascinating in looking at various articles during the mid-1890s, is that many of the new theaters credited to the firm were remodels. For example, the Lowell Opera House, the Avenue Theatre in Pittsburg, and the Howard Auditorium in Baltimore were three examples; all remodeled during 1894-1895. In each case the stage was enlarged, necessitating the purchase of a new drop curtain and scenery. Thomas G. Moses was there to create the stock scenery. Just as Moses had travelled throughout the west in the 1880s, painting scenery for new theaters that replaced burned predecessors, he was now following the theatre renovation parade.

And there was also a fraternal connection for both J. B. and his son William. William was a member of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks (B.P.O.E.). He was a member in the Brooklyn Lodge at Atlantic City (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 11 July 1895, page 1). I have not been able to find a Masonic connection, but his father was a Freemason and it was unlikely that William would not follow in his footsteps. J. B. McElfatrick’s obituary published, “He was a Mason, was widely known to theatrical people all over the country, and was in active charge of his business to the last” (New York Times, 7 June 1906, page 7).

So here is where my two worlds intersect; McElfatrick was an architect who renovated dozens of existing buildings to include a stage and was also an active Freemason. His work was well known in Indianapolis, Columbus and Cincinnati, all cities that implemented some of the earliest stages for Scottish Rite degree productions in renovated buildings. What are the possibilities that McElfatrick was involved in the transformation of degree work that shifted the historical reenactments from the lodger room floor to the elevated stage?

To be continued…

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