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The National: Entertaining Crowds Since 1923



 

Richmond, Virginia, has a rich history in the arts. At one time, a section of Broad Street in downtown Richmond was known as Theatre Row. Three grand auditoriums along that avenue entertained patrons with plays, concerts, and early motion picture shows. 

 

 Today, only one of the grand theatres remains. Construction on The National began in 1922 and was completed in 1923. Ironically, it sits on the site of another theater, The Rex, constructed in 1909. The Rex was demolished to make way for the new theatre, one the developers hoped would be the grandest in Richmond. The design and construction were quite forward-thinking. An adaptable stage allowed it to present motion pictures and live shows, including traveling vaudeville shows. In its heyday, theatergoers were treated to show-biz luminaries, including Orson Welles and Eddie Cantor.

 

When the theater opened on November 11, 1923, the governor of Virginia, the mayor of Richmond, and a crowd of 2,000 people packed the theater to see a standing-room-only showing of Thomas Ince’s film Her Reputation.

 

The theater was designed by architect Claude K. Howell, who designed many stylish residences on Monument Avenue in Richmond. Built in the Renaissance Revival style, the auditorium originally seated 1,300 with an orchestra pit seating 24 musicians – believed to be the largest in Virginia. A large oval dome in the theatre was a central focal point and still remains today. Nymphs throughout the building were installed by Italian sculptor Ferruccio Legnaioli. The opulent theatre attracted guests as much for the splendor of the building as it did for the shows. 

The exterior was designed to resemble an Italian villa, finished in blonde-colored brick with terracotta detailing. The central section rose four stories, with a two-story wing on either side. The portion facing the street contained a restaurant and retail space on the first floor and offices on the second and third floors. The fourth floor was dedicated to the projection room. In the basement, men could play billiards. 

 

In 1966, a local firm that also owned the other two theatres on Broad Street purchased The National. The theatre had an encore when it underwent a conversion to a dedicated cinema theatre in 1968. At the time, it was called Towne Theater. During that renovation, the theatre’s balcony seating was rearranged, the orchestra pit was covered, and much of the intricate Adamesque plasterwork was painted over. Despite the new look and name of the theater, more theaters were opening in the suburbs, and by 1981, it was the last of the theaters still open in downtown Richmond. When it closed in 1983, the theater sat empty. 

 

The City of Richmond entered into an agreement with the state and local historical society to purchase Theater Row. One of the theaters was razed. Another façade was incorporated into a new building. The National (Towne) remained. A dedicated group with the Historic Richmond Foundation worked to gradually restore the aging theater. 

 

The theater had yet another encore when a company purchased the building in 2006. Over the next couple of years, it underwent a $15 million renovation. It reopened in 2008 as The National, a 1,500-seat performing arts and live music venue. 

 

In 2014, the theatre was acquired by AEG Presents, a theatre owner/operator out of Los Angeles that has 49 theatres around the country. The National is a popular live music and performing arts venue in downtown Richmond today. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. Today, it stands in the area known as the Grace Street Historic District, and it is known as a concert powerhouse. 

 

The National has presented shows by scores of notable artists of all genres. From Widespread Panic to Willie Nelson, The Avett Brothers to Alice Cooper, and many more, there is something for everyone at some point or another at The National. In addition to concerts and other performances, The National is used for corporate events, awards shows, weddings, and other private events. 

 

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