History of the Garde

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History of the Garde Arts Center in New London, ConnecticutHistory of the Garde

The Garde Arts Center was created in 1985 as a non-profit performing arts organization in order to save and reuse the historic Garde Theatre, one of the few remaining historic movie palaces in Connecticut. Built in 1926 during the golden era of motion pictures and vaudeville theatres, the recently restored Moroccan interior of the Garde Theatre, along with the new seats and state-of-the-art stage equipment, provide a very audience-friendly theatre venue in a warm and beautiful atmosphere. Today the Garde is becoming nationally recognized for its unique architecture and multi-faceted programming.

The Garde Arts Center is not just the Garde Theatre. It has become an “arts block” of historic buildings, which are all being transformed into a multi-space center for arts, education, commerce, and community events. The four-story Garde Office Building, which has been one of the most desired professional and commercial buildings in New London for decades, has been transformed into expanded lobbies, box office space and a 130-seat performance and function hall called the Oasis Room. The three-story Mercer Building provides offices for Garde administration and has a historic function hall that is slated to become a performance space for smaller audiences. The one-story Meridian Building houses commercial and non-profit businesses as well as stage support space.

Building the Garde Theater

The Garde, Meridian and Mercer buildings were all built between 1924 and 1926 on the site of the baronial mansion of whaling merchant William Williams. The Garde Theatre sits on a portion of the Williams estate that was purchased from the Williams family by Theodore Bodenwein, the founder of The Day newspaper. The newspaper magnate sold the land to the new theatre developers so that something would be built “for the good of New London.”

The Movie Theater & Vaudeville Theater

The theatre was built during the height of the movie palace era as a “photoplay house” by architect Arland Johnson, under the direction of Arthur Friend, a New York movie studio attorney, who was building six movie houses in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Named after Walter Garde, a Hartford and New London businessman, the Garde Theatre opened on September 22, 1926, with the silent film “The Marriage Clause,” starring matinee idols Francis X. Bushman (1883-1966) and Billie Dove (1903-1997). The Garde was hailed by the press of that time as “one of the finest theatres in New England” Typical of the era, the theatre was a stage for vaudeville as well as film. Variety acts of music, comedy, acrobats, and magic were interspersed between the showing of feature films, comedy shorts, and newsreels.

For decades, the Garde Theatre played a central role in the community life of New London and Southeastern Connecticut. Its ornate Moroccan interior, giant screen, and marvelous acoustics ensured that Warner Bros., who purchased the Garde for $1 million in 1929, would maintain it as one of the region’s most stunning and viable movie theaters. The Garde’s nontheatrical events included a national touring production of the play Tobacco Road in February 1953 and a televised showing of the Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay boxing match in October 1964.

Formation of The Garde Arts Center, Inc.

As New London faced the growing competition from suburbanization and malls leading to a decline in its economic health, the Garde also fell victim to declining retail, malls, multiplex cinemas, and television in the ’60s and ’70s. Despite occasional blockbuster attendance like the 1971 screening of The Godfather, declining attendance forced RKO-Stanley-Warner to close the theater in 1977. In 1978, it was sold to a locally owned business Robertson Paper Box Company who, after attempting to operate the theater on a regular basis, sold the building in 1985 to the newly created non-profit Garde Arts Center, Inc.

The Garde’s Return

In 1987, the Eastern CT Symphony Orchestra made the Garde its new home. 1988, the Garde hired its first executive director, Steve Sigel, and began presenting a full spectrum of performing arts series: dance, musical theatre, contemporary music, and family events. Notable performances from that period included Marvin Hamlisch, Itzhak Perlman (both in 1989), Johnny Cash and Tony Bennett in 1990, The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in 1992, and two sold-out concerts by Bob Dylan in 1998.

In 1988, the State of Connecticut awarded $750,000 to replace the theatre heating and air-conditioning system, the first of several major facility grants three successive Governors shepherded through for the Garde. The Mercer and Meridian buildings were purchased in 1993. In the summer of 1994, movies were added to the Garde’s live programming. That year began a $15.75 million fundraising effort – Campaign for the Garde 2000 – to restore and expand the theatre. In October 1998, the Garde opened with its new lobbies and storefronts and, one year later, the theatre opened with the theatre interior restored. The Oasis Room began to be consistently used by 2008, primarily for mostly jazz, folk and popular music. The adjacent Mercer Building provides dressing rooms for the Oasis Room. The corner storefront of the Mercer Building on State and Meridian Street houses the Garde Gallery community art and meeting space.


The Garde’s original Moorish decor and palatial design of the theatre and lobby were typical of the “exotic” movie palaces of the 1920’s, which attempted to create a far-off land of mystery, romance, and glamour. The Egyptian, Oriental, and Aztec themes of many movie palaces reflect the fascination with archaeological discoveries and lost worlds during that period. The overall effect was to treat ordinary citizens of the depression era like royalty, providing them a true Hollywood escape from their daily lives. Audiences in that era came to see the theatre as much as the movie.

Garde Theater circa 1927

The Garde auditorium is a classic atmospheric theatre. The architecture and decorative elements have a feeling of a distant place, specifically that of Northern Africa. These elements are reminiscent of Islamic art and architecture in its simpler period when Bedouin Arab influences prevailed, and lead to later stages when the influences of Persia and greater opulence began to dominate.

When the audience sat down in their seats, they were transported to a palace in Morocco or a temple in Marrakesh. Exotic bas-relief murals adorn the auditorium sidewalls, depicting caravans traveling along the desert to ports of call, dancers in their colorful attire, and ladies browsing for the unusual in the marketplace. The stencil work on the ceiling and balcony are reminiscent of palace and temple ceilings and the design is similar to Bedouin carpet patterns.

History of the Garde Arts Center in New London, ConnecticutThe murals on the side walls of the lower auditorium and balcony levels are unique to the Garde Theatre. Unlike other theatres where the murals are located primarily on the sounding boards as a picture, the murals in the Garde play a much more intricate part of the theater’s decoration. They are not simply a flat, one-dimensional picture, but a combination of traditional painting method and bas-relief. Even though two methods are being used, the style remains quite loose and spontaneous overall. The bas-relief has been used primarily for the figures of people and animals while the other details (mountains, sand dunes, and sky) have been painted.

The artist who originally created the murals was Vera Leeper. This theater is the only left that has her work. Extensive research has failed to come up with any more than a single photo of one auditorium wall with her mural. She devoted her later years to teaching Native American children in the Southwest.

The following is an extract from an article written about her work from The New London Day, September 1, 1926:

Something new is found in the interior decoration of the Garde theatre in that the cement walls and ceilings are finished without artificial filling. The color scheme is devoid of bright gilt but is of pleasing quiet tone, giving a cool effect, with designs and scenes from the Orient. The ceiling background is of a dull orange color with the beam work standing cut with quiet Oriental designs in figures. On either side wall are depicted desert scenes with a beautiful perspective on a mountainous background brought out in harmonious contrast to the foreground desert effect. In panels on either side of the interior are portraits separate in themselves but in harmony with the general decoration plans.

The interior decorating was done by Miss Vera Leeper of Denver, Colorado. Clad in knickers and painter’s frock she could be seen day after day adeptly crawling along and through the mass of stage work that completely filled the interior of the theatre during the decorating work.

Through the work of Miss Leeper the Garde theatre is the first in the country to be decorated by means of a commercial product known as morene and applied with a knife instead of a brush. The new substance is mixed with colors to obtain the desired color effect and plastered on the rough cement walls with a knife, giving the effect of a bas-relief, a distinct advantage over the flat paint scheme. Patrons of the new theatre will be astonished when they see for themselves the magnitude of Miss Leeper’s art.


The firm of Hannivan and Company, from Toronto, oversaw the restoration of the lobbies and auditorium. In October 1995, David and Patti Hannivan came to the Garde to research the original finishes of the Garde theatre and lobbies. At the time, all the walls and ceilings, except for the ceiling of the auditorium, were painted white. Much of the plaster and brickwork was badly damaged by weather and overpainting, making a return to the original impossible without causing further destruction. The original Garde lobbies were two small areas on the orchestra and balcony level without any concession counters and with only one set of restrooms on the balcony level.

Other than two auditorium photographs, there were no exact descriptions, drawings, or pictures of the original theatre design. The Hannivans had to scrape and explore wall, ceiling and floor surfaces to uncover what the original designs and color schemes might have been. Where there was no direct evidence of pre-existing designs, the Hannivans were asked to carry out the intent of the original.

The Lobbies – Old and New

History of the Garde Arts Center in New London, ConnecticutThe outer lobbies are a new structural addition designed by Centerbrook Architects (CT) to provide larger lobby space, concessions areas, and increased, more convenient restroom facilities and amenities. They were developed for code-required safety needs and wheelchair and elevator access. The lobby design cleverly incorporates new architecture to meet contemporary audience and building needs while directly connecting to the restored, Moorish interior of the original lobby spaces.

The original lobby entrance, a steep and narrow foyer, was replaced with a new at-grade entrance at the west side of the building on adjacent land the Garde acquired. The new lobby was created out of three storefronts of the Garde Office Building, which were originally separated from the former theatre lobby by thick brick and concrete walls. A floor was inserted in the middle of the high-ceiling storefronts for new and expanded restrooms and two large, curved concession stands. A new entryway into the auditorium was added on the east side of the restrooms. The lower portion of the former storefront space is an additional lower lobby, accessible by elevator and a curved stair.

The restored part of the original Garde Theatre begins in the Kitchings Family Lobbies. The actual restoration was done by a crew of young people trained by Hannivan, including students from Lyme Academy of Fine Arts, Connecticut College, and the community at large. The murals on the side walls depicting Mediterranean scenes are based on the discovery made in the summer of 1998 of the western mural depicting a man smoking a hookah that had been hidden for 60 years. The east mural is a new complementary design since no documentation of the original has yet been found. Scenic painter, Elaine Mills, of Stonington, restored the side murals.

The African masks above the murals were recast by local sculptor Jennifer Collins from two originals that remained in the upper lobby. Collins also created the molds and built the pieces for the decorative tile work on the walls, the theater door plates and handles, and the medallion tiles that decorate the wooden arches throughout the auditorium. The “gates of the city” at the center of the grand staircase is a new design by the Hannivans executed by the local crew. The fountain is also a new concept in the style of the old.

The upper lobby, now called the Pfizer Mezzanine, was expanded by moving the former restrooms to a corridor on the way to the Oasis Room. The newly available spaces house a private reception room

on the west side, the Moroccan Room, and a new bar on the east side. At the balcony level, a floor of offices previously occupied by Garde administration was connected to the balcony lobby and became the Oasis Room, a 3,500 sq. ft performance and function hall with a catering kitchen. Each lobby floor has direct access to a new elevator and stairway.

Auditorium Restoration

The restoration of the auditorium had to incorporate contemporary lighting and sound technology as unobtrusively as possible. The biggest challenge was a variable acoustical treatment to “tune” the hall to everything from symphony to rock to Broadway. Jaffe Holden Scarbrough Acoustics Inc., with the assistance of Sachs Morgan Studio, theater consultants from New York, devised a stunning decorative concept of Moroccan-style arches and valences that would frame retractable curtains that enhanced the historic design of the interior. A series of filigree arches with custom-made decorative ornamental plaster finishes around the sides and rear of the orchestra seats create a Moroccan courtyard effect, from which desert scenes can be seen in the distance. The arches are designed to provide additional acoustic enhancement and to carry curtains, which can be opened or closed depending on the performance.

A new acoustical wall was installed in front of the projection booth with side pockets into which curtains can be withdrawn. Angled walls were built into the side of the stage proscenium and on the face of the balcony to better disperse sound. The actual sound system consists of three speakers directly over the balcony, nine speakers under the balcony and a cluster of speakers across the top of the proscenium.

The seating was decreased from 1,511 to 1,458 or 1,488 when removable seats are used in the orchestra pit area. The new orchestra-seating layout has wider seats, curved aisles, and staggered rows to improve audience viewing. Other new additions included new carpeting, a new chandelier and house lighting, new stage lighting, a sprinkler system, new electrical systems for sound and lights, and new auditorium entries and exits.

Future renovations include stage expansion, new dressing rooms, and a small secondary performance space.

The Mercer Building

The Garde-owned, three-story Mercer Building, directly adjacent to the Garde building, was purchased in 1993 as an important component of the Garde’s planned theater and a lobby expansion. Its basement houses the power plant for the Garde Theatre lobbies and offices, which was installed in 1998. The upper floors of the Mercer Building were directly connected to the Garde lobbies when the corridors were cut through into the Garde lobbies during the renovations in 1998. The second floor of the Mercer Building houses Garde administrative offices and support space for the Oasis Room. The Mercer building ground floor entry is the planned site for a function hall and lobby connected to the future 250-seat theater to be built on Meridian Street.

According to The Day cover story on September 1, 1926, the Mercer building was first built to be a stand-alone building with an alley between the Garde building. The Mercer Building began construction in October 1923 and became “one of the most beautiful and substantial store and office buildings in the city” when the main structure was completed in July 1924. Architect Dudley St. Claire Donnelly, who was the architect for some of New London’s finest structures, designed the building “of colonial design with slight modifications to allow for the advantages of modern requirements… with stone foundation walls resting on a solid ledge. The exterior walls are of red brick with terracotta and marble ornamentation.”

In March 1926, work started on an addition that brought the Mercer Building directly abutting the Garde building. The addition expanded the second and third floors of office space and provided additional space for two storefronts on State Street and one store on the Meridian street side. The addition was meant to complement the business in the storefront corner of State and Meridian, The Garde Catering Co., operated by Walter Garde. The Garde Catering Co. had a large (72 feet by 33 feet) banquet hall with four large weatherproof skylights, plastered ceiling and wall and an oak floor.