Completed in 1912 and located in the heart of downtown Charleston, The Capitol Center Theater is now part operated by West Virginia State University. The historic building held vaudeville productions in the early 20th century when it was known as the Plaza Theater, and later held movies and other events before closing in the 1980s. After a neighboring historic theater was demolished, preservationists and investors worked with government officials to save, restore, and preserve the historic downtown theater.
Designed by architect P. Norwood Higgins, the WVSU Capitol Center opened as the Plaza Theatre in 1912, to serve primarily a vaudeville venue. By 1919, new owners had purchased the property and undertook a remodeling of the theatre to add such features as a Wurlitzer pipe organ and projector room to the interior, and a new marquee and large sign outside. They also rebranded the theatre when it was reopened with an elaborate ceremony in 1921, which included the governor Ephraim Morgan who viewed the first film screened in the theatre, “The Old Nest. For a few years, there was a coexistence of Vaudeville and film, but after a fire in 1923 caused the roof to collapse, the decision was made to focus solely on film. In the late 1920s sound was added to the theatre to meet the new trend of talking pictures.
Through the years, the Capitol Theatre was a nexus of entertainment and culture in Charleston. In 1956, another major remodel project updated the interior and exterior of the theatre and added elements of the Art Deco style to the mostly Classical Revival style. The theatre continued to operate until 1981 when it succumbed to competition from chain theatres and multiplexes. In 1983, a nearby theatre (the Kearse Theater – built in 1922) was demolished to make room for a parking lot. In response, many local residents became concerned that the remaining historic downtown theater might suffer the same fate. In response, local preservationists and a group of 28 investors pooled their resources to form the “Capitol Renaissance ’84-1 Ltd.” to purchase the vacant property in 1984. The organization renovated and reopened the building the following year, primarily as a performing arts center. The theater became the home of Mountain Stage and other local productions and was celebrated as an adaptive reuse projection that would help revitalize the old business district in downtown Charleston.
The theatre building itself is three stories tall and is nestled between two adjoining buildings on either side. The exterior façade is divided into three segments with 4 brick pilasters (a rectangular columnn that projects from a wall). There are three large windows on the second and third floors. The color scheme is mostly green and beige. There is a parapet that adorns the upper part of the building that contains decorative ornamentation. At the center is a triangular pediment containing artistic decorations. The street level was significantly altered in 1956 when much of the theatre was remodeled. An Art Deco ticket booth was installed on the right side of the building near a pair of doors in the center of the building where the lobby is accessed from the street. There is a large marquee that overhangs the ticket booth and entry doors.
Inside, the lobby features similar Art Deco style to the ticket booth, including artwork and decorations. The main auditorium is 110 feet deep and 53 feet wide and features a floor that slopes toward the stage and orchestra pit. There are two aisles in between the rows of chairs. There is also a substantial balcony that extends over two-thirds of the main floor. In addition to the stage, there is a single screen and about 800 total in the theatre. In 1991 the theatre was donated to West Virginia State College (now University). The venue is part of the university and includes five classrooms and computer lab. The main auditorium hosts university productions and the West Virginia International Film Festival.