Documenting the American South


Going to the Show

Colony Theater, Fayetteville, N.C. 1941

Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

Stillwell designed the Colony Theater in Fayetteville for North Carolina Theatres, Inc., the name used by the Wilby-Kincey chain of theaters for their properties in North Carolina. The Colony was located at 329 Hay Street in downtown Fayetteville. Located southwest of Raleigh on the state's coastal plain, in 1941 Fayetteville was a city of 17,500 residents, approximately forty percent of whom were African American. Fayetteville's modern history has been shaped by the presence of nearby Fort Bragg. Originally established during World War I as a small artillery training camp, Fort Bragg expanded dramatically after the entry of the U.S. in World War II in late 1941. At the height of the war, more than 150,000 soldiers were stationed there.

When the Colony opened in July 1941, it became the fourth Wilby-Kincey theater in operation in Fayetteville and the city's largest movie theater, with more than 1000 seats. The front of the Colony was only twenty-three feet wide, giving it a modest profile on busy Hay Street. The auditorium extended across the fifty-foot width of the property behind the adjacent storefront, however. This situation was not unusual. Many large downtown movie theaters had narrow frontages on a main commercial thoroughfare: property in any downtown was valued by the frontage foot. Movie theaters could take advantage of the much cheaper land that lay to the rear of downtown commercial buildings--what developers and architects called "backland"- by placing the theater's auditorium, stage, and support facilities there.(Herzog 1980, p. 83)

Front Elevation- Colony Fayetteville, Courtesy of Henderson County Public Library, Henderson, N.C.

For the facade, Stillwell chose the spare, modern style he had used for all of his North Carolina theaters from 1938 to 1940. A triangular marquee extended from the stucco facing above the box office lobby. Passing through a double-door vestibule, white patrons entered an L-shaped foyer, off of which were located toilet facilities. Beyond the foyer was the 800-seat auditorium. The Colony could accommodate both films and live entertainment, and featured a full stage and, in a partial basement level below it, three dressing rooms.

Stillwell designed the Colony to accommodate African American patrons in segregated spaces in the theater. A separate entrance, shown just to the left of the main box office lobby in the front elevation, opened onto stairs leading to a mezzanine level with a second box office and small toilet facilities. As the balcony was accessible only by these stairs and the plans showed none of the provisions for dividing the balcony seating by race that Stillwell had included in the designs for some of his other projects, it can be assumed that the balcony was intended to be used by African Americans alone.

The Colony opened on Monday, July 28, 1941. The Fayetteville Observer gave the occasion extensive coverage. Officials from the Wilby-Kincey organization were in attendance, as was Erle Stillwell himself. It was announced that the Colony would become the chain's primary first-run theater in Fayetteville, with the Carolina relegated to second-run status. Admission prices were set at thirty-three cents for matinees and forty-four cents for evening performance. There is no mention in the newspaper articles or ads of admission prices or seating arrangements for African Americans. ("Colony Theater Opens Monday," Fayetteville Observer, July 26, 1941, p. 2).

In his book on Stillwell's drawings, Buildings as History: The Architecture of Erle Stillwell (Mitchell 2006, p.35), William Mitchell notes that the Colony closed in 1976 and was demolished in October 2005.