Rialto Theatre

also known as Westminster Congregational Unitarian Church

A sliver of an 1829 structure survives under this turn-of-the-20th-century vaudeville theatre turned movie house turned commercial storefronts

About this Property

#Last Tenant

This is a nice enough building, but its history makes it all the more charming. Originally a transplanted Greek-temple built for a church, 70 years after its construction it was converted to a theatre. The yellow brick facade that we see now was added in 1902. It operated as a vaudeville theatre named “The Scenic Temple” for almost ten years before another conversion, this time into a movie house in 1919. Another conversion in the 1950s turned the theatre entrance into mid-century commercial storefronts.

The lyric details survive in the form of cast stone medallions on the second story. The cornice and brackets are in remarkably good shape, as are the half round windows. One mid-century storefront remains for the former Dragon 2000 restaurant, complete with terrazo flooring, street number inlays, and half round glass facade details. The rear of the building has faded signs painted on it. One says “Free Parking, only while Shopping, City Hall Store.” Above that we can barely make out “Loring Studios” (There was a Loring Studios in Pawtucket on Main Street, est. 1972).

From what we can tell from aerial photos, the building has not changed in its footprint since 1939. At some point, though, about two thirds of the church was removed and a brick wall added to the back of the building. Very little remains of the original 1829 stuccoed-stone structure.

#Current Events

The street-front first-story has been three commercial storefronts since the 1950s. Looking at the front, you can tell that the plate glass windows of the center business occupy what used to be the main theatre entrance. Dragon 2000, an Asian restaurant, occupied the space on the left and was staging a comeback. Their social media handles are all defunct now. Richmond News smoke shop and convenience occupied the center space but that seems to have been replaced by a sneaker store. The space on the right was occupied by the George Hunt H.E.L.P Center, but looks to be empty now.

#History

From the National Register nomination form for the Downtown Providence Historic District, prepared by William McKenzie Woodward, Principal Historic Preservation Planner, 1984

119-127 Mathewson: Former Rialto Theatre, previously Westminster Congregational Church (1829, 1902, 1950s): Russell Warren, architect for original structure; William R. Walker § Son, architects for 1902 facade renovations. 3-story, stone-and-brick-sheathed, wood-and-masonry structure with mid-20th-century storefronts; five regularly spaced 2-story round-head windows with stone trim and decorated keystones on upper stories; heavy cornice; original stuccoed rubble-stone walls exposed at rear of side walls.

The Westminster Congregational Society was formed in 1828, and construction of their meetinghouse began almost immediately. The stuccoed-stone octastyle Ionic temple was a fully realized academic treatment of the Greek order. The congregation moved to Adelaide Avenue in 1902. At that time, the portico was removed, a new facade was added, and the structure was converted into a movie theatre. Later changes include the conversion of this theatre into a commercial block and the demolition of the rear part of the building, leaving essentially an early 20th-century building. As an early 20th-century presence on the street, this building is similar in scale and detailing with adjacent structures.

From CinemaTreasures.org

This Rialto Theatre was one of a group opened or owned by Edward M. Fay (1875-1964). Mr. Fay spent his life involved with the entertainment industry, as violinist, conductor, vaudeville impresario, poet, and motion picture theater owner. He owned at least six different theaters between 1928 and 1971, and was called by the Providence Journal the “dean of Rhode Island entertainment” (April 22, 1947).

On December 31, 1906, the Scenic Temple threw open its doors. It had movies and illustrated songs, and also had four acts of vaudeville. Hours were from 1:30 to 10:30, six days a week, with new shows every Monday and Thursday. Admission was 10¢. The Scenic had been the old Westminster Congregational Unitarian Church and a roller rink before its life as a theatre. The old church probably sat 700 on the orchestra floor and another 200 in the balcony. Owner Charles Allen’s modifications were minimal. He covered up the windows but the floor remained flat and he put in a stage without a curtain. A vertical sign with lightbulbs spelling out the word “Scenic” was suspended over the sidewalk in front of the minuscule entrance lobby.

Downtown Providence and many other cities and towns were flooded with theatres at the turn of the century, and only a handful of them remain. It is hard to remember, or fathom, what a gigantic effect Vaudeville and eventually movies had on entertainment. This excerpt from “The Board of Trade Journal” of April, 1915 makes a case for not enough theatres to meet the demand:

“The Emery is turning away people at every performance. The ‘Hip’ [Hippodrome] with its very large auditorium, is packed to the doors. The Bijou and Nickel can’t accomodate those seeking to see ‘the movies,’ neither can the Gaiety, the Scenic, the Union or the Casino. Out in Olneyville Spitz & Nathanson’s new theatre has all it can attend to.”

Allen died in 1915. A Providence Journal article from March 1 reported that James Bartley of Seekonk had purchased the then-dormant theatre and was to spend $50,000 to remodel the place, which had been closed and on the market for some time. The changes would include a new pitched floor, an enlarged balcony, a new lobby of 20x40 feet and a new frontage of brick with limestone trim. The interior would be finished in stucco and marble as would the new lobby. The theatre would not have a stage but would be used exclusively for movies. The reconstruction work was being done by the construction firm of Timothy Coffey of East Providence. In September, 1919 the theatre was reborn as the Rialto Theatre. According to the Providence Journal Almanac from 1935, the seating capacity of the Rialto was 1448. On the façade along the top, one can make out the outline caused by removed lettering. It is very faint, but it does say Rialto Theatre. The Rialto remained in business until 1936, when most of the building was torn down and the remaining front part was converted to shops and offices.

An editorial by David Brussat in the Providence Journal of March 17, 1994 suggested the site of the former Rialto Theatre as the place to put a movie theatre in the then cinema-less downtown. One suggestion was for a multiplex at the site; another was for a single-screen “blockbuster house.” At the time plans were already underway to bring movie theatres to the proposed new mall at Providence Place, and this Rialto-revived facility never materialized.