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Capitol Theatre

Peter Maltezos's picture

Text from Melbourne Architecture

Capitol Theatre

109-117 Swanston Street

1921-24 Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony in association with Peck and Kemter


When this cinema opened in 1924, the public flocked to hear the Wurlitzer organ and see the movies and the spectacular light show afforded by the Griffin’s plaster ceiling design. Like a crystal-hung cave, thousands of concealed coloured lights were gradually illuminated to provide a fantastic atmospheric experience. It was a space that evoked spiritual transcendence, but the interior of ‘living rock’ was not the direct romantic evocation of a Tuscan garden as seen in the later Forum. It was certainly otherworldly, but the image was distinctly architectural, suggesting a stepped pyramid form, the mystical essence of an original and arguably natural monument.

The Capitol was also of technical interest, to achieve such a dramatic ceiling, massive reinforced concrete portals allowed the interior structure to be hung uninterrupted by any internal columns. Outside, the Capitol is also distinctive. Two deep cornices cap two pylon motifs each of three vertical piers extending over the entire height of the façade. It is, as historian Jeffrey Turnbull has suggested, like a giant gateway. Cinema historian Ross Thorne has described it as, ‘…not a mere breath of fresh air wafting through the design offices of Melbourne, it was a howling gale of modernity sweeping out every vestige of revivalist decorative stylism.’

Tragically, in the 1960s, the owners decided to insert a shopping arcade right through the middle of the auditorium. A campaign to save the theatre was waged and a compromise was reached: the cave-like foyers were destroyed and a new floor was inserted. Many of the original lobby and vestibule spaces were either destroyed or boarded up, but the ceiling was saved. In recent years, great efforts have been made to restore surviving elements of the theatre. The dramatic cantilevering street canopy with its light globes and skylights is the most significant recent restoration.


One of my own shots above and two postcards below.


The incredible interior.


These three images below show the original ground floor that was demolished in the 1960s to make way for a very ordinary shopping arcade that leads to Howey Place.

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Peter Maltezos's picture

Ready for a facelift: $20m plan to restore the Capitol Theatre

NOVEMBER 21 2017 - 12:15AM Carolyn Webb

Seeking a return to glory days: RMIT professor Lisa French, left, and venue manager Marc Morel inside the Capitol Theatre in Swanston Street. Photo: Jason South

In her 93 years, the Capitol Theatre has suffered more ups and downs than a Saturday matinee film heroine. 

At various times, it's been loved, shunned, stripped, downsized and neglected.

In 2014, owner RMIT University closed the cinema, which it had been using for lectures, due to its poor condition.

Now the university is seeking to raise $20 million to restore the once magnificent Chicago Gothic-style "palace" in Swanston Street, to its former glory.

Already $8 million has been pledged, including $2.5 million from the State Government and $500,000 from a single donor – a 27-year-old RMIT graduate and now filmmaker, Ling Ang. 

I collect, therefore I am.

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Development & Planning

Wednesday, December 13, 2017 - 12:00
The swirl of development activity in Footscray has found another gear as new projects are submitted for approval, or are on the verge of beginning construction. Two separate planning applications have been advertised by Maribyrnong City Council; their subsequent addition to the Urban Melbourne Project Database has seen the overall number of apartment developments within Footscray in development swell to 40.

Policy, Culture & Opinion

Monday, November 20, 2017 - 12:00
The marriage of old and new can be a difficult process, particularly when the existing structure has intrinsic heritage value. In previous times Fitzroy's 237 Napier Street served as the home of furniture manufacturer C.F. Rojo and Sons. Taking root during 1887, Christobel Rojo oversaw operations though over time the site would become home to furniture manufacturer Thonet.


Visual Melbourne

Friday, August 25, 2017 - 07:00
The former site of John Batman's home, Batman's Hill is entering the final stages of its redevelopment. Collins Square's final tower has begun its skyward ascent, as has Lendlease's Melbourne Quarter Commercial and Residential precinct already. Melbourne Quarter's first stage is at construction and involves a new 12-storey home for consultancy firm Arup along with a skypark.

Transport & Design

Friday, December 15, 2017 - 11:00
Infrastructure Victoria unveiled a new round of research into its larger programme of work dealing with managing transport demand. The authority contracted Arup and KPMG to produce the Melbourne Activity Based Model (MABM) and while it is new, it is considered fit for purpose in the strategic context.

Sustainability & Environment

Tuesday, October 24, 2017 - 12:00
Cbus Property's office development for Medibank at 720 Bourke Street in Docklands recently became the first Australian existing property to receive a WELL Certification, Gold Shell and Core rating. The WELL rating goes beyond sustainable building features with a greater focus on the health and well-being of a building's occupants.