You don’t have to go to Miami or Hollywood for an Art Deco experience. New England has plenty of Art Deco office buildings, theatres and post offices – you just need to know where to look.
Art Deco, a term coined in the 1960s, describes the first truly international style of art, architecture and design. It took its name from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. Initially, Art Deco style melded fine craftsmanship and rich material into a sleek modern style. It evolved into a more streamlined, subdued style during the Great Depression. (Read more about Art Deco here.)
Art Deco gave way to even more modernist styles such as Brutalism after World War II. The movement to preserve Art Deco buildings then began with the Miami Design Preservation League in 1976 and spread to other U.S. cities. Boston, for example, started the Art Deco Society of Boston in 1989.
But you can find Art Deco buildings throughout New England. Here are six, one in each state. If you know of a great Art Deco building in your state, please share it in the comment section.
The Eli, New Haven
The forward-looking design of the Southern New England Telephone Administration Building promised a bright future for the company when finished in 1938. Then the tallest building in New Haven, it was intended to show the company’s prosperity and importance to Connecticut with its size, its costly materials and its lavish embellishments.
The outside of the 17-story building is faced with Indiana limestone, the lobby’s Spanish marble walls richly embellished with zig-zag patterns, flying geese and futuristic nickel-bronze alloy.
When construction began in 1937, New Haven had about 20 phones for every 100 people, among the highest usage rates for telephone service in the country. SNET had built the first telephone exchange in the country in New Haven in 1878. (Before exchanges, customers had to have a different instrument for each person they called.)
Douglas Orr, who also renovated the White House, and Roy Foote designed it as the corporate headquarters for 1,200 Southern New England Telephone Company employees. Growing demand for telephone service caused overcrowding in the building within 10 years.
Today, the building is known as The Eli and used for luxury apartments.
227 Church St., New Haven, Conn.
The Grand, Ellsworth, Maine
In 1933, an arsonist burned down 130 buildings in the Ellsworth business district by starting a fire in the city’s new Bijou movie theatre. The city rebuilt a brick shopping block in 1938, including The Grand movie theatre for 730 people. Its opening was such a civic achievement that a high school band gave a concert and the entire city council showed up to see the film Holiday.
The striking marquee made The Grand stand out. It’s topped by a 20-foot-tall sculptural tower of stainless steel and colored glass with stylized lettering. Geometric gold trim stamps the interior as Deco style.
By the 1950s, television took away The Grand’s movie audience, so the owners installed a boxing ring and held boxing matches. It didn’t work. They then tried film, stage productions and rock ‘n roll. In 1975, a local theatre group, The Ellsworth Players, formed a nonprofit and bought The Grand. It was a mess. After refurbishing it, Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary reopened with a benefit concert. More groups began using the theatre. In 2012, the historic marquee was restored and the National Register of Historic Places put The Grand on its list.
165 Main St., Ellsworth, Maine
The Old John Hancock Building, Boston
The Old John Hancock Building is now called The Berkeley Building, but this is New England and we call things what they used to be.
The firm of Ralph Adams Cram and Frank Ferguson designed the Old John Hancock to stand out boldly in the Back Bay skyline. Finished in 1947, the old Hancock stood as the tallest office building in Boston for 17 years, surpassed only by the Custom House Tower. From 1947-1976 it served as the headquarters for the John Hancock Insurance Co.
Though dwarfed physically by newer skyscrapers – including the new John Hancock Tower – the Old Hancock has a special place in the hearts of Bostonians. On top of its very Deco-esque ziggurat roof sits an illuminated spire that forecasts the weather – and announces Red Sox victories.
A well-known rhyme explains the Old Hancock’s signals:
Steady blue, clear view.
Flashing blue, clouds due.
Steady red, rain ahead.
Flashing red, snow instead.
During baseball season, flashing red means bad weather caused the cancellation of the Red Sox game. When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2003, another line was added to the poem:
Flashing Blue and Red, when The Curse of the Bambino is dead!
200 Berkeley St., Boston
Post Office, Lancaster, N.H.
Way up in the North Country of New Hampshire one doesn’t expect to see an Art Deco post office, but one stands in a commanding position in downtown Lancaster. The building made it onto the National Register of Historic Places list in 1986 as a prime example of ‘starved classicism’ — a style prevalent in big cities.
The Lancaster Post Office, built in 1935, is a simple brick-and-granite building with steel-framed windows. The lobby, with its patterned quarry tile floor, hasn’t changed, except for the light fixtures. The service windows also have the original lattice grillwork.
“The architectural design of this Post Office is most unexpected, especially so being located in a small northern New England town,” wrote the architect who nominated the building for the NRHP.
120 Main St., Lancaster, N.H.
Pawtucket City Hall
Pawtucket’s machine politician mayor, Boss Tom McCoy, made sure the city got its share of federal recovery programs during the Great Depression. Pawtucket City Hall was one of the first beneficiaries of the program, costing $450,000 to build it between 1933 and 1936. The monumental structure allowed Pawtucket to consolidate all city departments in one building. The central fire department occupies the left wing, police headquarters the right.
A talented local architect, John O’Malley, designed the Pawtucket City Hall as well as Pawtucket West High school. He planned a soaring tower that included four 12’9” carved eagles at the summit. Carved bas-relief panels below the first floor windows illustrate people, buildings and scenes important to Pawtucket. Two eagles sculpted on each side of the main stairway look as if they are landing on City Hall’s doorstep.
Critics consider the Pawtucket City Hall one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in Rhode Island. The tower, though, is strictly ornamental and prone to leaking. A rehab project in 2005-6 cost $4.5 million and didn’t fix the leak. Some Pawtucket city councilors have proposed lopping off the tower to save money.
137 Roosevelt Ave., Pawtucket, R.I.
Latchis Hotel and Theatre, Brattleboro, Vt.
The sons of Demetrius Latchis built a four-story mixed-use hotel and theatre in his honor in 1938. Demetrius had arrived in New England a poor Greek immigrant, but he and his sons built a business empire that included restaurants, hotels and theatres.
For years the Latchis played a vital role in downtown Brattleboro, with a theatre, hotel, restaurant and shops. A rare example of Art Deco architecture, it features museum-quality terrazzo floors, statues of Greek gods and goddesses and murals of Greek mythology.
Eventually the Latchis declined. The theaters were broken up and the hotel reverted to single-room occupancy for poor people. Then in 2003 the Brattleboro Arts Initiative bought the building and restored it. Now known as Latchis Arts, it features first-run and independent films, live shows and a 40-room boutique hotel.
50 Main St., Brattleboro, Vt.
Images: Eli Building By Sage Ross – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5026497; The Grand By SarekOfVulcan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21006691; Old John Hancock Building, Peter H. Dreyer; Lancaster Post Office By AlexiusHoratius – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25070704; Pawtucket City Hall By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28128656. This story last updated in 2022.