It is the long-forgotten fore-runner of Detroit’s most beloved movie palace.
The Washington Theatre opened on July 21, 1913, on the northwest corner of Washington Boulevard and Clifford. It was designed by Frederick T. Barcroft, though for years was wrongly attributed to Arland W. Johnson.
The red-bricked Renaissance Revival theater blended in almost perfectly with the Statler Hotel, which opened next door in 1915. Many of the theater’s 1,862 seats were often filled by the Statler’s guests.
The Washington was part of the empire of theater chain pioneer William Fox, the New Yorker responsible for movie studio giant 20th Century Fox. By 1913, he was one of the more successful independent exhibitors and distributors in the business and started to expand into more cities, including Detroit. In 1915, Fox formed the Fox Film Corp., which allowed him to make movies and then show them in only his theaters. At this point, Fox started building theaters across the country at a dizzying pace, and his empire quickly grew. In 1919, the Detroit theater’s name was changed from the Washington to the Fox Washington, though the marquees said “William Fox Washington.” The name change was in part to let people know where they could see such Fox Film movies as “Oh, What a Knight,” “His Musical Sneeze,” “The Divorce Trap” and “The Roaming Bathtub.”
Fox’s make-‘em-and-show-‘em-yourself strategy -- coupled with his introduction of organ music to accompany silent films -- brought him incredible fortune. In turn, the incredible fortune led him to start erecting movie palaces across the country. It was decided that Detroit’s wealth and glamour from the rise of the auto industry necessitated a Fox palace of its own. Fox commissioned theater master C. Howard Crane to build the current Fox Theatre just up the road from the Washington. Deemed no longer necessary, the old Fox Washington was closed on June 3, 1928, and knocked down shortly thereafter. It stood for only 13 years. Fox’s new 5,041-seat palace opened Sept. 21, 1928.
The Washington Theatre is also notable for being one of the earliest, if not the first, theater to be built on Grand Circus Park and apart from Detroit’s long-established entertainment center on Monroe Street. At the time it was built, Washington Boulevard was mostly rundown, small residential and commercial structures. Grand Circus Park had little development whatsoever, with the only notable structures being the first half of the Hotel Tuller and the Church of Our Father.