128 EAST FRANKLIN ST. / PICKWICK THEATRE (THIRD LOCATION) / J. B. ROBBINS / FRANKLIN CENTRE

128 EAST FRANKLIN ST. / PICKWICK THEATRE (THIRD LOCATION) / J. B. ROBBINS / FRANKLIN CENTRE

128
,
Chapel Hill
NC
Built in
1916
/ Modified in
1925, 1938, 1953, 1954, 1957, circa 1960
Construction type: 
Local Historic District: 
National Register: 
Type: 

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  • Submitted by SteveR on Wednesday, January 13, 2021 - 9:07pm

    From the October 25, 1921 Daily Tar Heel

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  • Mon, 04/19/2021 - 1:46pm by SteveR

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128
,
Chapel Hill
NC
Built in
1916
/ Modified in
1925, 1938, 1953, 1954, 1957, circa 1960
Construction type: 
Local Historic District: 
National Register: 
Type: 

 

The theater outgrew its second location, and another theater, the Tar Heel Theatre, was opening so Brockwell purchased a lot across the street in October 1915, with plans to start a new theater in a new building to be built on the lot. By December, construction was underway on the building, touted as the largest movie theater in the state.
 
By the early 1920s, William S. Roberson (Chapel Hill's mayor) was the proprietor of the theater and L. J. Phipps was the manager (Phipps was later a trustee for North Carolina Theaters, Inc.). The theater building was gutted by a fire in March 1924, but was expanded and reopened May 31, 1924, and was reported to be "well ventilated," with "a new projection machine and comfortable seats" for 750 patrons. Between the fire and the reopening of the theater, since Chapel Hill was temporarily without a movie theater, the YMCA showed movies in Gerrard Hall on the UNC campus.
 
 
December 1915 Sanborn map excerpt, showing theater building(s) being constructed
 
Exterior showing ticket booth, 1916 (via UNC)
 
Interior of theater, 1916 (via UNC)
 
Exterior of theater, circa 1920 (via Chapel Hill Historical Society)
 
 
 
 
Circa 1920 photo of the south side of Franklin Street, showing the Pickwick Theatre (image courtesy UNC) 
 
By 1925 (see Sanborn map excerpt below) the theater absorbed what had previously been part of the "auto station" to its west, and was expanded. These changes occurred mainly due to the 1924 fire.
 
June 1925 Sanborn map excerpt, showing building in its new configuration (outlined in red)
 
 
On July 3, 1927, the first radio broadcast originating in Orange County was broadcast from the Pickwick as WKBG, 850-860 AM. The program consisted of a choir concert, performed live from within the theater. The transmitting antenna was located on the building's roof. 
 
The Pickwick closed in 1931, which has been attributed to lack of attendance resulting from the Great Depression; however, the Carolina Theater had recently (1927) opened in a new building across the street and likely took away much of the Pickwick's business. 
September 1932 Sanborn map excerpt, showing unused movie theater (outlined in red)
 
UNC students in front of the former Tar Heel (at left) and Pickwick (with arched entryway) theaters, 1934 (courtesy UNC)
 
After the theater sat vacant for a few years, in 1935 Brockwell leased the theater to North Carolina Theaters, Inc. (which also owned the Carolina Theater – the present-day Varsity Theater), and the theater was renamed the Pick Theater; however, due to some financial difficulties Brockwell had in 1925, when the Bank of Chapel Hill obtained a deed of trust on the property, the lease was renegotiated and became effective in July 1938 (to end in August 1945). Sometime during this period, the theater building served as a town courtroom until its reopening in November of 1938. North Carolina Theaters, Inc. made E. Carrington Smith (the manager of the Carolina Theater) the manager of the Pick. In 1940, Brockwell died, and in May 1942 his wife, Fannie, renewed the theater building's lease to North Carolina Theaters, Inc. The Pick Theater closed for good in 1946. 
 
Interior, November 1938 (Chapel Hill News)
 
November 1938
 
The Pick Theater, 1940 
 
 
 
Circa 1947 (photo by Bayard Wootten, via UNC)
 
 
The structure was drastically remodeled in 1951 as the J. B. Robbins Department Store, and again in 1954 and yet again circa 1960 (this time quite drastically). The J. B. Robbins Department Store was in business until 1969.
 
1951 (CHW)
 
1954 (CHW)
 
1957 (CHW)
 
1967 ad
 
Late 1960s postcard excerpt showing the Robbins Department Store in background (and Franklin Street's "Flower Ladies" in the foreground)
 
1969
 
First floor left/east side of structure, 1977 (via Chapel Hill Historical Society)
 
First floor right/west side of structure, 1977 (via Chapel Hill Historical Society)
 
September 1977 ad (DTH)
 
 
Was the Town Hall music venue in the early 1970s, then the Mad Hatter.
 
In the 1980s, the structure, known as the "Franklin Centre," was again remodeled, with the facade and interior again being drastically altered. While it appears to be quite a mess, architecturally, it sure looks better than the 1950s remodel!
 
This is another structure that is slated for demolition, along with several other historic structures to its east and south, by UNC.
 

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From the October 25, 1921 Daily Tar Heel

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