The Empress Theatre, built in 1917, is both historically and architecturally significant. The design of the building, a combination of Neo-classical and Beaux Arts styles, makes it the most outstanding example of high style architecture in Magna. Though not a premier example of the Neo-classical style in Utah, the Empress Theatre is one of a number of distinctively styled theatres in small Utah towns that are dominated by relatively plain commercial buildings. Historically, the Empress Theatre is one of the oldest and best preserved commercial buildings in Magna, and it is the oldest theatre in the community.
The Empress Theatre was built on Main Street in Magna in 1917 by the Western Theatre Corporation, about which nothing is known. The theatre was owned by Western Theatre Corporation only until October 1918, when it was sold to Thirza A. Hemingway, also an unknown. During Hemingway’s years of
ownership, 1919-23, the theatre was listed in the city directories only in 1919 and 1923, indicating that it was not in operation for 3-4 years. Frank Burgner, who bought the theatre in 1923, owned and operated it until 1932, after which it was owned for three years by State Building and Loan Association. From 1931 through 1935 the theatre was once again left vacant, as indicated by the city directories. George and Alice Smith bought the Empress Theatre in 1935 and operated it for almost 20 years. The building has been virtually unused for the past 30 years.
At the time of its construction the Empress Theatre was the second theatre in Magna. The other theatre, the Palace Theatre, operated from 1914-17, but its location is currently unknown. Two other theatres also operated in the town during the period from the 1920s through the 1940s, the Rialto (1921-26) and the Gem (1927-44+). Only the Gem remains and it has been significantly altered.
The Empress Theatre was constructed during the period of greatest growth in Magna, the 1910s-20s. The Utah Copper Corporation was established in 1903, incorporating numerous small mining operations into one large one, and soon after erected the Magna and Arthur concentrators near the site of Pleasant Green, which several years later became known as Magna. The Empress Theatre was one of a number of buildings that were erected along Main Street during the decades of the 1910s and ’20s, creating a substantial commercial district. Most of those buildings have been left vacant and neglected over the past 20-30 years, however, as the prime commercial district has shifted further west and south and the depressed local economy has dried up most businesses in the old Main Street area. The Empress Theatre is one of the best preserved of the older commercial buildings along Main Street, and it is easily the most sophisticated in terms of its architectural design. Most of the remaining buildings in the area are relatively plain, nondescript commercial buildings.
This is a 1-story one-part commercial block type building that is constructed of brick and has a flat roof. The design is essentially Neo-Classical, although some Beaux Arts influences are in evidence. The most distinctive features of the building are its pressed tin dentiled” cornice and decorative curvilinear gable on the parapet. At the center if the gable is a rectangular panel framed by rosettes and topped by scroll work and a flag pole. There are swags and garlands on the frieze above the recessed front entrance. The façade is broken up into three bays by brick piers. The entrance bay is highlighted by ornate, pressed tin pandrels at both corners. These spandrels appear to be inspired by the Beaux Arts style. The brick piers have vertical recessed panels, a decorative motif that is carried over on horizontal panels on each of the side bays. Narrow transom lights are found above the openings on each of the side bays. The building is currently vacant but remains in good condition and retains its historical integrity.
The Empress Theatre was built in 1917 by the Western Theatre Corporation. Originally a burlesque theater for the local miners, the theater soon began showing silent movies. The Empress is one of four theaters that were erected along Magna’s Main Street during the decades of the 1910s-1930s. This followed the establishment of Utah Copper Corporation, which brought jobs and population growth to the area.
For many years, the Empress went through a number of owners as well as periods of vacancies. The theater was abandoned for several decades and was purchased in 1978 by the Barker family who began restoring the building. Leo Ware took over ownership in 1983 and continued the project. However, in July 1984, the Salt Lake County Commission threatened to have the building demolished because it was unsafe. After an appeal, the Commission reversed their decision and allowed Ware until the end of the year to stabilize the building, which he did. He continued working on the building for more than a decade, using state and federal grants to help with the expenses. Unfortunately, Ware was injured in an auto accident in 2002 and could not finish the rehabilitation of the building. In 2006, a local non-profit organization, Oquirrh Hills Performing Arts Alliance, was formed to take over the project from Ware. The Alliance continued to receive grants and completed the work. The Empress finally reopened as a live performing arts theater in November 2006 and has seen over 100 productions since then.
The design of the building, a combination of Neo-classical and Beaux Arts styles, makes the Empress Theatre the most outstanding example of high-style architecture in Magna. This theater is an example of the many distinctively styled, early 20th-century theaters found in small Utah towns, which are dominated by relatively plain commercial buildings. Historically, the Empress Theatre is one of the oldest and best preserved commercial buildings in Magna.