Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)

Legacy Department

Historic Preservation

Committee Member

Amalia Leifeste, Committee Chair

Committee Member

Frances Ford

Committee Member

Kristopher King

Committee Member

Richard Zender


Charleston is a city that values its historic past to an extent that heritage tourism supplies a large portion of the economy. Charleston's enthusiasm for Revolutionary and mid-eighteenth century history overlooks many components of Charleston's history, including the entertainment advances of the early twentieth century, namely the thirty-two movie theaters that sprouted along King Street. The lack of attention has resulted in a substantial loss of movie theater fabric, to the degree that only one former theater retains the ability to show movies. The purpose and programming of the movie theaters has changed, and lighting has evolved from a character-defining feature into a subdued characteristic in the interior of the buildings. This thesis explores the once-prevalent and current potential for advertising and dramatic experiential qualities that lighting provides for historic movie theaters in Charleston. This thesis is comprised of two significant and inter-related findings: that Charleston adopted electricity and movies late but contemporaneously, and that existing buildings served as the vast majority of the movie theaters. The thesis asserts that exterior architectural lighting is a character-defining feature. Following the establishment of characteristic lighting, this thesis argues that there was a historic precedent for Charleston movie theaters using lighting to define their character. Conclusions drawn from the research identify Charleston as a late adopter of electric lighting. The popularity of moving pictures coincided with the rise of electricity unlike other cities, which implemented electricity earlier. In terms of trends in lighting character, 70% of the study theaters were located in existing structures and that had a decisive impact on the visual character of Charleston theaters. These theaters utilized lighting as advertising and as the primary method of eliciting emotional investment for otherwise average commercial structures. The spectrum of established theater typologies, such as what constitutes a movie palace, is not easily applicable to Charleston. Thesis findings also concluded that there is an unrealized opportunity to employ some of the lighting design concepts and specific fixtures from the movie-theater era history of specific buildings into the contemporary rehabilitations of the buildings to continue the centuries-long tradition of captivating customers along King Street.



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