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History of

The Wilson Theatre

"Occasionally a building appears in an out-of-the-way place that seems to defy local expectations—the 1920 Wilson Theater is one such building. Located on the northwest corner of the historic town square in rural Rupert, the Wilson Theater is unique in Idaho, inviting comparisons to the so-called jewel box banks Louis Sullivan designed in the Midwest between 1908 and 1920 and to the entry to the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company department store in Chicago (1899–1904). Daniel Ward Wilson, a businessman with connections to St. Louis, had already built two theaters on the square in Rupert when he decided to add a grand theater to his new Idaho hometown, a rural community of 2,000 people. The $75,000 theater exceeded Wilson’s original budget, probably due to the building’s elaborate features for stage and screen. The 700-seat theater was equipped with a new gold screen that could be used with the latest projectors as well as a fly-loft allowing set changes. Designed for vaudeville, silent films, and local events, the theater functioned into the 1950s but over time its design was altered to accommodate the needs of a modern cinema.

The two-story brick building is a flatiron in plan with its narrow entrance pointing toward the historic square. The entry, the most highly decorated and unique portion of the building, features a curved, red brick facade with four decorated arches topped off by high apertures trimmed in terra-cotta-like ornament. Each aperture features a round light fixture that illuminates the inside and outside of the entryway. Both the detailed ornament and the apertures strongly suggest a Sullivan influence. Wilson lived in St. Louis until 1920, so it is likely he at least knew Sullivan’s famous Wainwright Building.

The western side of the building includes leasable commercial space divided into five bays to create a mixed-use facility. The Wilson Theater was a glorious addition to the small Idaho town but by 1925 the building was in receivership. By the 1950s, much of the fine ornament had either deteriorated or been removed and a standard movie marquee had been added to the facade. For the next decade, while the building served as Rupert’s movie house, it was functional but had lost the breathtaking elements that made it special.

In 1997, a group of Rupert businesspeople established the Rupert Renaissance Initiative. This community development committee ultimately purchased and renovated the Historic Wilson Theater for use as a multipurpose community and arts center. Begun in 2000, the restoration effort was led by local activist and visionary Earl Corliss. Funds came from numerous sources, including a $500,000 donation from local farmer Robert Orr. Although the original plans for the building have not been located, and the architect remains unknown, Pocatello architect Jerry Myers has provided constant professional guidance to the restoration team under the supervision of Chris Jackson. As of 2015, the Wilson Theater restoration project raised nearly $2 million over the course of its seventeen-year restoration. Updated lighting and sound technology have been installed and the theater has been reconfigured with [390] seats."
Before the restoration was complete, performances were already being held, with patrons often bringing camp chairs or blankets to sit on. Idaho State University was kind enough to donate their used seating when they renovated their performance hall. The seats you see now in the theatre were considered one of the final pieces of the restoration. Each seat was a donation from a local individual or business. Each seat could be purchased for the price of $650, and each donors' name appears on the name plate of the nearly 400 seats throughout the theatre. The seats were custom designed to be more comfortable and wider than those back in the 1920's, but still have that old theatre style and look to them.
We would like to thank any and all volunteers and donators that made the restoration of this majestic building possible. Without the diligent community members that fought to keep this theatre as a part of the community, it would have been demolished. Words cannot express how thankful we are that the Wilson stands as beautiful as she does today, and that she will be able to bring lasting memories to the Mini-Cassia area for another 100 years or more. 

The section of the article in quotations was originally written by D. Nels Reese for the Society of Architectural Historians, and is currently posted on the SAH Archipedia website titled "Renaissance Art Center". We would like to thank Mr. Reese for this beautiful article. Small updates were made to improve the accuracy of the history and updates that happed since Mr. Reese wrote his article.

D. Nels Reese, "Renaissance Art Center", [RupertIdaho], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

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