Capitol Theatre, Melbourne

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Capitol Theatre
RMIT Building 113
RMIT Building 113 (Capitol Theatre)
Capitol Theatre, Swanston Street facade
Address 113 Swanston Street
Melbourne, Victoria
Owner RMIT
Designation Victorian Heritage Register
Capacity 600
Current use Education, events
Opened 1924
Architect Walter Burley Griffin and
Marion Mahony Griffin

The Capitol Theatre is a single screen cinema located on Swanston Street in Melbourne, Australia (opposite the Melbourne Town Hall). The theatre, part of the Capitol House building, was opened in 1924, and is renowned for its geometric plaster ceiling. The theatre was renovated in the 1960s to reduce its size and convert the stalls area into a shopping arcade.

After a period of inactivity in the early 1990s, the Capitol Theatre was purchased in May 1999 by Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University). It is currently used for university lectures and cultural events such as film and comedy festivals.


Development and early use[edit]

The Capitol Theatre was commissioned by a group of Melbourne businessmen, including the Greek Consul-General Anthony JJ Lucas and well known cinema owners the Phillips brothers. It was designed by the renowned US architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, and today is considered the finest interior design work by this talented couple. Lucas had worked previously with Griffin on the development of both the Vienna Cafe as well as his own property Yamala in Frankston.[1] The official plans for the Capitol were submitted for approval on 21 November 1921, and after being approved on 9 February 1923 construction began and was completed in 1924. It was officially opened on 7 November 1924. The theatre itself and ten-storey office block above it, are registered with the Australian Heritage Commission, the National Trust and Heritage Victoria. The building belongs to the interwar period and the architectural style is Chicagoesque. It was described by the leading architect and academic Robin Boyd as "the best cinema that was ever built or is ever likely to be built".[2] Originally seating 2137 (stalls 1306, balcony 633, loges and boxes 198). During the 1930s, the seating capacity was reduced to 2115 people. The theatre was considered an architectural masterpiece, and has continued to receive critical acclaim ever since its first opening.

Ceiling detail
Original curtain and stage area decoration

The theatre is notable for a number of pioneering concepts such as early use of reinforced concrete, stained glass details and a highly complex three-dimensional spatial arrangement. Its greatest feature is the geometric plaster ceiling. This was based on organic design principles of natural orders and are composed in a way which is both evocative and modern. The ceiling was indirectly lit and the lighting was used in conjunction with the original orchestral scores in the early silent film era to add drama for the spectator. Thousands of coloured lamps producing light that changed through all the various coloured hues in the spectral range were hidden amongst the plaster panels creating a crystalline cave effect.

The Capitol was also the home of the first large Wurlitzer Organ to come to Australia. The Wurlitzer was originally used to provide music and sound effects for the films. After "sound" films took over it was used for musical entertainment in between shows. It was frequently broadcast on the ABC and remained in regular use until the mid 1950s.


Lobby of the theatre
Entrance of the theatre

After the advent of television in the late 1950s, audience numbers dwindled dramatically and in the early 1960s Hoyts Theatres let their lease expire. The result was that the theatre had to close. Almost immediately there was a campaign waged to 'save the Capitol' by the National Trust and a group of prominent, yet committed architects including Robin Boyd. A compromise was soon reached: After closing for extensive renovations on 17 November 1963, the interior foyer was remodeled to make way for the Capitol Arcade, although the theatre and ceiling was rightly retained. The two-level auditorium was converted to a single-level cinema seating 600. The upper balcony became the existing auditorium with a new raised floor which was raked down to a newly inserted stage. The Wurlitzer organ was removed and relocated to the Dendy Cinema in Brighton in 1967. The reconfigured Capitol Theatre reopened on 16 December 1965 under the control of Village Cinemas who held the lease until 1987. They relinquished their lease when their then (at the time) new Bourke Street Complex was opened in 1988.

The opening film after the renovation was The Great Race, which had a run of two years. Other long running engagements over the years included the films Ryan's Daughter (1970), The Towering Inferno (1974), A Star Is Born (1976) and Superman: The Movie in 1978. The present shopping arcade is where the stalls seating used to be. The old staircases leading to the dress circle foyer were blocked off and a new marble staircase from street level was built to a simplified new foyer upstairs.

Recent history[edit]

In 1998 Melbourne city council hired Melbourne architecture firm 'Six degrees’ to undertake a study that would explore the possibility for the theatre to be used as a festival and arts based centre. In 1999, RMIT acquired the space to preserve the heritage of the building and to use it as a lecture theatre and festival venue. They elected to keep ‘Six Degrees’ as the project architects, and conservation architect Michael Taylor, due to their founded knowledge in the site, but the study itself was not furthered on. The 1960s renovation was deemed as inappropriate as it enclosed many open spaces of the theatre and detracted from the original spatial qualities. The renovation plans were accordingly altered to accommodate the original spatial qualities, namely interlocking foyer areas, ceiling details as well as giving the building an overall safety upgrade, masterplanning and disabled access. The budget for this demolition and renovation work was $2,200,000 and not only saw restoration work but many new additions to the theatres original design. The new additions to the theatre included audio visual installations and theatre lighting systems, re-lamped ceilings and new lift and disabled access corridor. These new additions to the theatre were made up of soft and natural materials to complement the original design.[3]

In 2005, RMIT announced that the theatre would get a A$190,000 upgrade,[4] including restoration and painting of the [Alhambra]]-inspired ornamental ceiling. The ceiling restoration project was overseen by Michael Taylor Architecture & Heritage.

Free public tours were held from 2000 to 2010, ending due to dwindling participants. In 2014, the work needed to restore The Capitol Theatre became so substantial that the building closed to the public. In 2017, an appeal was launched by RMIT to reactivate the landmark.[5]


  1. ^ "Walter Burley Griffin Society - Melbourne". Retrieved 2008-04-06. 
  2. ^ Robin Boyd, The Australian, 24 December 1965
  3. ^ Six Degrees Pty Ltd Architects - "RMIT - Capitol Theatre Upgrade". Retrieved 2012-11-04. 
  4. ^ "RMIT - Capitol Theatre gets $190,000 upgrade". Archived from the original on 17 September 2006. Retrieved 2008-04-06. 
  5. ^ Webb, Carolyn (21 November 2017). "Ready for a facelift: $20m plan to restore the Capitol Theatre". The Age. Retrieved 2017-12-06. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 37°48′55″S 144°57′59″E / 37.81536°S 144.96636°E / -37.81536; 144.96636

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