Hampton’s Art Deco-Influenced Palmetto Theater

palmetto theater hampton sc
History is preserved at the Palmetto Theater. Image found on Wikimedia.

A drive down Hampton’s Lee Avenue brings you to the sight of an architectural treasure. The Palmetto Theater has proudly stool on this spot since 1946. This post-war building was once a social center in the Hampton community. The front features a prominent, ornate marquee with stylized neon lettering and geometric patterns. The theater was designed with a stage which was used for live performances. At full capacity, the theater can seat 450 on the main floor and balcony.

palmetto theater hampton sc
Original neon lights bring the historic theater to life. Photo from SC Dept of Archives and History.

The Palmetto Theater is significant as an example of small-town, southern, 1940s movie theater. The Art Deco- influenced Art Moderne architectural style reflects the social and economic pressures of the post-war period. According to Designing Buildings Wiki, art moderne architecture, “… is an architectural style that developed out of 1930s Art Deco. It was seen as a response to the Great Depression, designing buildings to be more streamlined and austere as opposed to the ambitious, opulent forms of Art Deco. Art Moderne buildings were usually white, and built with stucco, cement and glass.”

palmetto theater hampton sc
This close-up of the marquee shows what the neon tubes look like during the day. Photo by Amy.arch.

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation application, the Palmetto Theater was, “Built in 1946 by Clarence L. Freeman for its owners T. G. “Mutt” Stanley and Dr. James A. Hayne, Jr., the Palmetto Theatre is significant under Criterion C for its post-war Art Moderne architecture, which reflected the limited availability of construction materials following the war and the influence of regional theater construction. It remains as one of only a small handful of Art Moderne theaters in the state of South Carolina. The theater was restored in 1992 and retains a high degree of architectural integrity. The Palmetto Theatre was the brainchild of T. G. “Mutt” Stanley, a one-time mayor pro tem of Hampton, and Dr. James A. Hayne, Jr., a local physician. Built in a style heavily influenced by the flourishes of the Art Deco Movement that had given birth to so many movie palaces in the larger cities of the south during the 1930s, but technically an example of Art Moderne architecture because of its age and certain architectural elements, the Palmetto might have been considered passé to more cosmopolitan observers, but its design was greeted by the residents of Hampton as “handsome in every detail of its structure and design.”

palmetto theater hampton sc
The Carolina Theater of Allendale (image by Tom Taylor) was the inspiration for the Palmetto Theater (image by Roadarch.com).

The design of the Palmetto Theater was inspired by the Carolina Theater in Allendale. It was built for the bargain price of $45,000. Inside, the downstairs had upholstered seats and a red, white and blue color scheme. The projector was an RCA Brenkert 35mm. It took a full year to construct the theater due to war time construction issues and material delays. The building was constructed of concrete brick and stucco as a result.  According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation application, “Prior to deciding on a design, Stanley and Hayne toured several existing movie theaters and ultimately crafted a look that bears a striking resemblance to the Art Deco-style Carolina Theatre (ca. 1936) in nearby Allendale, South Carolina, including its rectangular mirrored glass brackets around the upper façade and its stunted central pylon (with chevron accents at the Carolina rather than the neon design found at the Palmetto). Design and construction of the building is attributed to Clarence L. Freeman of nearby Varnville.”

palmetto theater hampton sc
The marquee and central pylon have been preserved beautifully. Image by Webrarian.

The front of the theater boasts an ornate pattern made with black glass panels, probably from Carrara glass or Vitrolite. The concrete block wall is covered in stucco. The sides and back have exposed concrete block walls.

palmetto theater hampton sc
Thomas T Faucette captured this image in the 1950s. The Palmetto is seen on the far left.

The Palmetto Theater has been well- preserved and lovingly taken care of. The building was restored in 1992, with modifications and secondary additions, but retains an unusual degree of original architectural integrity.  It is one of the few remaining Art Moderne theaters left in the state. In the above image from 1950, you can see the theater and the traffic of Lee Avenue.

palmetto theater hampton sc
Night-time omage of the Palmetto Theater by Carolina Historical Consulting.

While the Palmetto Theater is a sight to behold during the day, the historic building comes to life at night. The original neon pink and green lights are stunning.

palmetto theater hampton sc
Close-up photo by Amy.arch.

The prominent steel marquee projects over the central entrance with flat sides and a bowed front. The center of the marquee is adorned with a medallioned “P” which is covered in neon at night. Pink and green neon cover various Art Deco inspired chevrons, zig zags, and other geometric patterns. Four rectangular designs in black glass tiles rise toward the center pylon draws your eyes up to a neon adornment that spells out “Palmetto”. More black glass tiles outline the front facade.

palmetto theater hampton sc
The Art Deco influence is highlighted at night by the use of neon. Image from SC Dept of Archives and History.

Aluminum poster windows flank the marque and entrance. The entry leads to two sets of double wooden doors with huge plate glass windows. The ticket window is to the left of the doors.

palmetto theater hampton sc
The second story fire escape and first floor side entrance have been bricked up, but their footprints are still there. Photo by SC Dept of Archives and History.

The left elevation still holds a reminder of the separate first floor entrance and balcony fire escape. Before integration African American patrons used the side entrance and an interior ticket booth to view the movie from the balcony.  The separate entrance and fire escape have been removed, but their components survive to highlight the architectural evidence of segregation that happened throughout the south.

palmetto theater hampton sc
Stage view and back view of the Palmetto Theater. Images bu SC Dept of Archives and History.

The interior theater walls are made of acoustical tiles and still hold the original 6 Art-Deco light sconces. These light fixtures resemble candles sitting on semicircular bases. The unadorned balcony projects slightly over the orchestra. The majority of the balcony area is used for production purposes today. The original projection booth is housed in the back center of the balcony area.

palmetto theater hampton sc
Image from Palmetto Theater Facebook page.

The 1946 arrival of the Palmetto Theater into the social scene changed life in Hampton. The August 12 opening night festivities included an address by Senator George Warren. 550 patrons packed the theater, many in seats added for the special occasion. Movie titles at the Palmetto changed often and included newsreels and cartoons. It also parked a Blue Law controversy. South Carolina Blue Laws prohibited Sunday exhibitions. The operators of the Palmetto challenged this law and found themselves jailed for opening the doors on Sunday, September 10, 1950. Local clergymen expressed outrage. They gathered more than 800 signatures on a petition and presented it to the county. The men were arrested, but the movie continued uninterrupted. Hampton mayor Jim Holland bailed them out twenty minutes later. The theater owners went directly to the press to state their case. They claimed the Blue Laws were ridiculously out of date. Locals wrote the newspaper echoing these feelings. The theater continued to show Sunday movies. This challenge resulted in a social revolution in the county and paved the way for Blue Laws to be changed.

palmetto theater hampton sc
The original ticket booth is still in use today. Image by SC Dept of Archives and History.

The invention of the television in the 1950s, then home video and cable television in the 1980s brought an end to screenings at the Palmetto, and other small movie theaters across the country. Theater doors were closed in 1985. The building sat unused until 1992, when the Hampton County Arts Council purchased it. After extensive renovations, the theater reopened the following year. Dressing rooms and an outdoor courtyard were added. The theater is now used for performing arts productions. The theater is once again the center of community entertainment in Hampton.

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