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From Marquee: SPLENDOR UNDERFOOT (A Look at Theatre Terrazzos)

SPLENDOR UNDERFOOT
A Look at Theatre Terrazzos
By Gary Lee Parks
(Originally published in 2009 in Volume 41, no. 4 of Marquee. Available for purchase in hardcopy or digital download.)

Everyone who is fascinated by the design of classic theatres eventually finds certain architectural features to which they become particularly attached. One such decorative aspect is the art of the terrazzo pavements which so often spread out in front of theatre entrances like a shining polychrome rug. Theatre architect S. Charles Lee’s oft-repeated credo, “The show starts on the sidewalk” was taken literally by theatre designers. It is conceivable that a passerby, too lost in thought to otherwise recognize a theatre’s entrance, would notice the dramatic change in sidewalk surface and be instantaneously seduced by undulating stripes or curving leaves,  which drew the eye to the beckoning box office and entrance doors. For those fortunate enough to remember Saturday matinees the terrazzo can be recalled through squinting eyes, being the first vision of blazing daylight one had upon leaving the darkened theatre.

What follows is a brief history of the terrazzo medium, a basic explanation of the process of making a terrazzo pavement, and few words about some of the designs themselves.

ORIGINS
The word terrazzo comes from the Italian word for terrace. While ancient floors made of crushed stone aggregate embedded in clay have been found at various places in the Mediterranean region the earliest obvious ancestor of today’s polished pavements comes from Venice, appearing by the 16th century. Producers of inlaid multicolored marble pavements and other stone embellishments swept the chipped refuse out of their workshop doors onto the soft clay terraces outside at the end of each day. The treading of feet would work these chips into the clay, eventually resulting in a multicolored texture which was seen as attractive. Soon renowned architects were deliberately including the surface in their buildings. Andrea Palladio’s Venetian villa designs during the 1560s made abundant use of terrazzo.

What today is called terrazzo — a composition of marble or other aggregates set in a colored matrix and then ground and polished — gained headway with the 1824 introduction of Portland cement. As the decades advanced, terrazzo began to be produced in situ as exterior and interior pavements, or fashioned into modular pavers, stair steps,  balusters, and later, counters and shower pans.

 

 

PAVEMENT FABRICATION
Condensed to its essentials, and leaving out the numerous carefully-calculated formulae for achieving specific colors and textures, the production of a sand-cushioned terrazzo pavement proceeds as follows:

• A concrete slab is poured and made smooth.
• An isolation membrane consisting of a 1/16″ layer of clean sand is spread on the concrete.
• A 2″ x 2″ 16 gauge wire mesh is laid down.
• A Portland cement under bed at least 2 1/2″ thick is poured over and through the wire mesh, embedding it.
• While the under bed is sufficiently soft, zinc or brass divider strips, 1/8″ thick at the top, and supplied with stabilizing flanges along their bottom edges, are set into it, in either a grid or any desired decorative pattern.
• The terrazzo topping of pigmented Portland cement with marble chips, typically 1/ 2″ thick, is poured and toweled onto the under bed, up to the level of the top of the divider strips. If the pavement is to be multicolored, care must be taken to pour each color so that accidental mixture does not occur. The marble chips ( today, recycled glass and other crushed materials are rising in popularity) come in colors which are carefully regulated if the fabricator wishes to adhere to the standards of the Western States Terrazzo Association (WSTA) and the National Terrazzo and Mosaic Association (NTMA).
• If desired, the wet, troweled surface can be “seeded” with additional chips to meet desired texture or color density.
• The surface is rolled and compacted to remove excess cement and water.
• Retroweling reveals the divider strips.
• The terrazzo cures under a layer of water, wet sand, or (today) polyethylene sheeting.
• Once cured (usually in two days) the hard-as-granite surface is ground with a hand-held electric grinder outfitted with diamond grit stones run over the surface. These stones are changed-out to finer stones as the grinding progresses, much as wood sanding is done in stages with increasingly finer grit.
• Any pockmarks in the surface are filled with matching tinted cement slurry, after which a smaller grinder is run over it to polish these finishing touches.

VARIETY OF DESIGNS IN THEATRE TERRAZZOS
While one obviously thinks of the terrazzos outside the theatres’ entrance doors, the material was used extensively for interiors. San Francisco’s Fox had its entire grand lobby paved with it, only to be covered by a vast rug which concealed the intricate floor for much of the theatre’s life. S. Charles Lee’s Los Angeles Theatre, which may utilize the most intricate terrazzo patterns in any theatre, has the Baroque flourishes, leaves, and cartouches of its entry sidewalk appear again in the restrooms. Baltimore’s Senator Theatre has only minimal terrazzo in front of the entry doors, but its entire lobby is resplendent in tasteful terrazzo rings and circles.

Oftentimes the aim of a theatre’s terrazzo, beyond welcoming the patrons to the delights presented therein, was to subliminally (and sometimes quite blatantly) urge potential patrons into the theatre, as stated earlier. Architect Timothy Pflueger, when speaking about the Oakland Paramount’s terrazzo entry pavement, specifically stated that the simple but dramatic bands he utilized were meant to urge the pedestrian to turn aside from the flow of sidewalk traffic and buy a ticket. In Long Beach, California, the Art Theatre (former Lee) still preserves a pair of very obvious “Lee” names, right in the line of sight of passersby, combined with literal arrows bending toward the entrance, superimposed on an otherwise purely decorative geometric pattern.

A FINAL WORD
Many of the skills involved in the embellishment of the theatres of decades long past have fallen out of use, to be occasionally revived by a few select companies specializing in restoration. Terrazzo production never diminished to such an extent. However, with the current revival of the idea that commercial buildings should delight the eye as well as function practically, terrazzo has experienced a resurgence,
after never completely going away. Today, with the use of recycled materials within its matrix, terrazzo has allied itself with the world of sustainable building practices, all the while proving to be as timeless as the stone from which it originated.

 

 

TERRAZZO STYLE-A REGIONAL THING
Theatre terrazzo style varies greatly across the United States. One finds far more terrazzo extending out to the curbs in front of theatres in the Western states. This makes complete sense, taking into account weather conditions. It makes no sense to have such a potentially slippery surface in climates where snow and ice are common. In these regions, terrazzo usually began close to, or inside, the entrance. The New Amsterdam Theatre on New York’s 42nd Street preserves a particularly fine cubist style floor in front of its doors which dates to a 1930s remodeling. This striking pattern halts, however, at the property line, as continuance out to the curb would have been hazardous in a Manhattan winter.

Terrazzos in the Greater Philadelphia area, dating from the 1920s and ’30s, have been observed as being stylistically conservative, on the whole. Often these are simple chessboard patterns in black, white, grey, or muted earth tones. Other terrazzos in places like upstate New York and throughout New England are largely designed along simple lines.

The West Coast, particularly California’s, has the distinction of being the place where theatre terrazzo art was given its fullest range of expression. As early as the 1920s, pavements were being laid in the lobbies, entries, and sometimes onto the sidewalks in front of the grandest theatres being designed. As the great depression began to ease toward the end of the 1930s, and a rise in theatre remodeling began, terrazzo was a key ingredient to fresh new entryways, along with new marquees and foyer wall surfaces. While Carl G. Moeller, designer for Fox West Coast theatres during the tenure of Charles P. Skouras, made that chain’s theatres the most frequent showcases of flamboyant terrazzo floors and sidewalks, builders of other chains and many independent exhibitors felt that a theatre was not complete if not fronted by a multicolored terrazzo “welcome mat.” Patterns usually fell into two categories: geometric or floral. Either way, they typically carried out motifs found elsewhere in the theatre.

The decline of theatre terrazzo paralleled the decline of theatre design, fading by the end of the 1950s. The Rheem Theatre, in Moraga, California (1958), the state’s final theatre to be designed from the ground up in true moderne style, features a fine entry terrazzo and lobby floor worthy of the art form’s theatrical swan song.

As grand old theatres came to be demolished, there were times when a terrazzo sidewalk would remain temporarily, like a grave marker, in front of a theatre site. Such were the cases of the Berkeley in Berkeley, the Centre in Watsonville, and even San Francisco’s mighty Fox, where a fine entry terrazzo, along with the concession counter, were the theatre’s only significant features added during the Skouras years. Some terrazzos have survived to be restored, such as those at the Fox Oakland and the Alex in Glendale. In the latter case, a large section of terrazzo that was lost when Brand Boulevard was given a “semi mall” treatment was completely recreated in the 1990s and carefully joined to the original pavement extant within the property line.

____________________________________________
The author and photographer wishes to acknowledge the websites of the American Terrazzo Company, San Francisco, the WSTA, and the NTMA, for further clarifying information gained from extensive onsite observation, such as the repair and restoration of the terrazzo at the entrance of the Fox Oakland Theater, Oakland, California, in 2009 and the demolition of the terrazzo sidewalk at the entrance of the Mountain View Theatre, Mountain View, California, in 1989. Find out more about Gary Lee Parks.

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