Biographies of Architects, Designers, and Builders

S. Charles Lee (1899-1990)

S. Charles Lee is recognized as one of the most prolific and distinguished motion picture theater designers on the West Coast. Born September 5, 1899, Lee was trained and educated in Chicago. He studied at Chicago Technical College and the Armour Institute of Technology. While a young man working for Rapp & Rapp, a highly regarded Chicago architectural firm, Lee became interested in theater design.

In 1922, Lee settled in Los Angeles. His first major cinema building was the Tower Theatre in Los Angeles, a Spanish-Romanesque-Moorish design that launched a career that would make Lee the principal designer of motion picture theaters in Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s. He is credited with designing over 400 theaters throughout California and Mexico. His palatial and Baroque Los Angeles Theatre (1931) is regarded by many architectural historians as the finest theater building in Los Angeles.

Lee's work quickly caught the attention of regional architectural journals. Architect & Engineer, for example, published a handsome presentation of his Los Angeles Tower Theatre in 1928. In 1934, Lee was honored for architectural excellence by the Royal Institute of British Architects at the International Exhibition of Contemporary Architecture in London, for his 1931 "Spanish American Mission style" design for the Fox Florence Theatre in Los Angeles.

Tower TheatreLee's ultimate legacy, however, is as an early proponent of Art Deco and Moderne style theaters, including Fresno's Tower Theatre (shown on right). The Bruin Theatre (1937) and Academy Theatre (1939) are among his most characteristic. The latter, located in Inglewood, is a prime example of Lee's successful response to the automobile. He is widely credited as one of the first architects to respond "to the impact of the automobile" in theater design.

After World War II, one of Lee's non-theater projects, a Jewish synagogue designed in the California Mission tradition, was featured in Architectural Record in 1946. Recognizing that the grand theater building had become a thing of the past, Lee redirected his energies toward new technologies in industrial architecture. His work in the field of tilt-up building systems was published in Architectural Record in 1952.

S. Charles Lee died January 27, 1990, hailed as a "prominent architect of movie theaters of the Art Deco period." His list of honors include the highest recognition of the Society of Registered Architects, the "Synergy Award," in 1975. An endowed chair honoring Lee was established at the UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning in 1986, ranking him among California's acknowledged master architects.

©1996 John Edward Powell. All rights reserved.
Photo ©1990 Keith Seaman, Camerad. Used by permission.