History of the NW Corner of Main and Portage Streets - Part III

BeeLines - April 23, 2015

By Marybelle Beigh, Westfield Historian

History of the NW Corner of Main and Portage Streets - Part III - The Era of the Three Grand Theatres - 1916 to 1992

As described in Part II, the 1912 Sanborn map, two street-scene postcards, and finally the 1912 Diner photo there was a lunch wagon, lunch car, or diner at the NW corner of Main and Portage. The Class Book of 1916 had an ad for the Bancroft Lunch Car, which was at first thought to be the 1912 diner. However, further research has found a brief notice in the September 1914 Westfield Republican that states that Glenn Bancroft purchased a [Closson] lunch wagon, located it near the trolley station of B & LE, & opened for business.

About six months after the Class Book of 1916 ad, the Westfield Republican of October 4, 1916, headline reads: “GREAT IMPROVEMENT - A New Block is Soon to be Erected on the Old Westfield House Site by C.J. Carlson.” AHA! Maybe this is what was suggested in that March 1907 news brief about the Odd Fellows purchasing the old Westfield House site from Minton, and planning to construct a building housing a “first class Opera House” as noted at the end o part II. According to the 1916 news article, the site was purchased from A.N. Brodhead, who owned one of the trolley lines that used that intersection. Brodhead apparently had acquired all of that property from the large ticket office that was now down under the viaduct, up to the NW corner of Main & Portage, since the viaduct had been built in 1908 for the B&LE trolley line to junction at that intersection with the JW& NW under the viaduct, and the Chautauqua Traction on Portage. Also, the 1912 Diner photo shows a canopied waiting area for passengers on the south side of the diner.

So the construction was to begin immediately “upon a two story block, with stores on the first floor and offices on the second, with a theater in the rear that will accommodate 775 seats besides the boxes and a stage that will accommodate any show on the road.” The article adds, “This building will be a great improvement to the village as this vacant lot has been an eye-sore since the Westfield House was burned in 1884.” Apparently the lunch wagon, the 1912 diner, and the old trolley ticket office were to be demolished to make way for the new Carlson Block. According to historian Dorothy Hopkins Curtis, in Part 1 of A History of Westfield - 1802-1997, the first “edition” of the Grand Theater opened in 1917. An old photo-postcard shows the Carlson Block shortly after it was built in 1917.

After six years of operation, in the early morning hours of Saturday November 3, 1923, a fire gutted the theater, and destroyed the Union Lunch Room, the Chautauqua Traction Ticket Office, the New York Farm Agency office and Al Vitanzi’s Barber Shop, most of which were located in the Carlson Building. Also damaged in the fire was Westfield’s first fire hall, particularly the bell tower (built in 1873), and there was some smoke and water damage to the Portage Inn. This led to the building of the second fire hall on Elm Street and the incorporation of the first fire hall building to expand the Portage Inn. After the fire, several members of the community combined efforts to rebuild the Carlson Block including the Grand Theater, which reopened in September 1924, showing Mary Pickford in Dorothy Vern of Haddon Hall. A silent movie, it was accompanied by “a very unusual entertainment by William T. Welch and R. Parlato.”

Billie Dibble, former Westfield Historian (1978-2006), wrote several Dibble’s Dabbles articles about the various incarnations of the Grand Theatre including November 18, 1981, “More Stars in Westfield in 1935” describing a home talent show for Rotary Club Charity Funds, and September 16, 1982, “Who remembers the Grand Theater fire?” These were republished in recent years (2007-2012) as well as September 27, 1984 - “Old movie theater, we miss you” and March 12, 1987, “The Grand Theatre: it was more than a movie house.”

In 1929, Vitaphone sound equipment was installed in the second Grand Theater, as well as an improved screen and larger projection booth to accommodate the sound motion picture equipment. As described in the several articles by Billie Dibble, this “2nd edition” theater operated through the 1930s providing a venue for senior plays, fund-raising events, Bank Night on Wednesdays, and even a firemen’s convention.

Then, in 1940, another disastrous fire destroyed the Carlson Building, and caused the death of Anna Brown who resided in an adjoining apartment. After the 1940 fire, films were shown at the Eason Hall until the third and final “edition” of the Grand Theatre was constructed. This theatre, in the Art Deco style, opened July 17 1941. The building housed three stores, on the main floor as well as a bowling alley in the basement. In 1965, the Grand Theatre was leased and reopened on July 7, 1965 by the Blatt Brothers theaters, Inc. who managed it through the 1970s. In the late 1970s, Kirsch Theaters of Erie PA took over the lease. Apparently the theater closed in about 1982, according to a Jamestown Post Journal article of March 2, 1985, by Doug Arters and Evan Kelley, “Westfield Grand theatre Is On The Way To another Comeback” including at least four historic photos of Old Grand, the 1940 fire and aftermath, and the Art Deco building with the marquee promising a new theatre in 1985.

Unfortunately, it seems this never happened, because The Westfield Republican, August 13, 1992, ran a front page article stating, “the theater, which has been abandoned for 10 years… considered an eyesore, is owned by Theodore Blakely, of Erie, PA.” The Group For the Revitalization of Westfield was joining forces with the Village of Westfield at that time, to demolish the building after purchasing it from Blakely, and was planning on putting a park in its place. The reasons for not restoring the building were that it was too close to the intersection and continued to be damaged by large trucks turning the corner, and that parking and accessibility of that corner were not appropriate or safe for clients, particularly children.