City Directories and History: RIVIERA THEATER
Constructed 1937-39; rehabilitated and renovated, 1996-97 Charles C. Benton and Sons, architects
“One of Charleston’s most beloved buildings, the Riviera theater, was built at the end of the 1930s as perhaps the city’s first purpose-built motion picture theater and is a significant example of the Art Deco style. The Riviera supplanted the earlier Academy of Music, a structure erected in 1838
and converted to use as a theater in 1869. The Pastime Amusement Company, operators of motion picture theaters in the early-twentieth century, acquired the Academy in 1920 but did not announce plans to demolish it and replace it with a new structure until 1936. Charles C. Benton, a Fayetteville, North Carolina, architect who designed theaters and churches throughout the South, planned the present structure with its Aztec temple shape, stylized geometric motifs, and vertical projections from the roofline. A terrazzo entry leads to an interior with a seating capacity for nearly 2,000 people.
A sign of the times, balcony seating was originally divided for whites and blacks.
The Riviera theater opened to Charleston audiences on January 28, 1939, with the feature Secrets of a Nurse, starring Edmund Lowe. Some of the wall murals, polychrome plaster details, and other Art Deco features remain intact. Recently acquired by the Charleston Place Hotel, the old theater is under conversion into a convention hall above and galleria shops along the Market Street facade.”
Information from: The Buildings of Charleston – J.H. Poston for the Historic Charleston Foundation, 1997
“The Riviera Theatre was built in 1939 by Albert Sottile. This building is Charleston’s best example of Art Moderne architecture. Previously on the site, built in 1830, was Kerrison’s Department Store. Tradition says it is the South’s oldest department store still in operation. That building, destroyed in the great fire of 1838, was rebuilt by Kerrison’s and used until 1852 when it was sold to the mercantile firm of Browning & Leman. That firm had a new store built, designed by Charleston architect Edward C. Jones. The large dry goods store was remodeled into a theatre by architect John Henry Devereux. Known as the Academy of Music, it opened in 1869 and was for 70 years one of America’s best known theatres. lt was patterned after European opera houses and had excellent acoustics. Sarah Bernhardt and other internationally known performers played the Academy. lt was demolished for construction of the present building. (Ravenel, Architects, p.211, 266; DYKYC, July 22, 1935.)” – Charleston County Library
Other sources: Charleston Tax Payers of Charleston, SC in 1860-61, Dwelling Houses of Charleston by Alice R.H. Smith – 1917, Charleston 1861 Census Schedule, and a 1872 Bird’s Eye View of Charleston, S.C. The Hist. Charleston Foundation may also have additional data at: Past Perfect
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