Opening night at the Hollywood-Western Building, December 8, 1928.

With S. Charles Lee acting as master of ceremonies, MGM star Moira Shearer, the wife of movie producer Irving Thalberg, opened the door with a golden key.

Thalberg and his business associate Louis B. Mayer commissioned the Hollywood Western Building as the home of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. Lee's four-storey Art Deco building celebrated the union of art and commerce.

 

S. Charles Lee, born Simeon Charles Levi in Chicago in 1899, was the son of American-born parents of German-Jewish ancestry, Julius and Hattie (Stiller) Levi. Lee (who later changed his name from Levi) grew up in the Chicago of Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Lee's own favorite building was Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott Department Store. He also grew up with the evolving motion picture; he went to vaudeville theatres, nickelodeons,and early movie houses. A tinkerer interested in mechanical things, Lee built three motorcars as a teenager. His interest in mechanics took him to Lake Technical High School in Chicago.

 

 
S. Charles Lee at the door of his office, 1648 Wilshire Boulevard, in the late 1940s.
 

He started out in architecture in 1915 by working after school in the office of Chicago architect Henry Newhouse, a family friend. Newhouse specialized in theatre design: small motion picture houses, nickelodeons and remodeling storefronts into theatres. After graduation in 1916, Lee attended Chicago Technical College, graduating with honors in 1918. His first job was as architect for the South Park Board of the City of Chicago. During World War II he enlisted in the Navy. After his discharge in 1920, he entered the Armour Institute of Technology to study architecture. The course followed the principles of the Ecole des Beaux Arts and this training is reflected in the composition and imagery of his later drawings. It is also reflected in his own emphasis on the plan as the driving force of the design. This practical approach would serve him well in his many commercial designs.

Other influences on the young architect were Sullivan's lectures in his architecture classes and Wright's work, particularly Midway Gardens and Wright's house and studio in Oak Park. Lee was also impressed by the 1922 Chicago Tribune tower competition, which juxtaposed historicism with modernism. Lee considered himself a modernist, and his career revealed "both the Beaux Arts discipline and emphasis on planning and the modernist functionalism and freedom of form."* He was also a pragmatist, designing his buildings to support and enhance the commercial ventures they housed.

Ann Scheid

3/13/2000

* Maggie Valentine, The Show Starts on the Sidewalk: An Architectural History of the Movie Theatre, Starring S. Charles Lee, Yale University Press, 1994, p. 32.

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