Supertall skyscrapers and glamorous museums can boost architects’ reputations or put a struggling industrial town back on the map, but as far as architecture is concerned, one type of building should never be overlooked: the theater.
As the backbone of urban culture, theaters in the United States have been gathering places for centuries. From operas to ballets to movies, the arts required buildings that were as beautiful as the performances they housed. Early 19th-century theaters were temples to ornamentation, clad in over-the-top chandeliers, heavy drapes, and with a penchant for gold.
Today, the theater remains a crucial part of a city’s lifeblood, even as the types of performing arts have expanded. Modern theaters are technological marvels, pairing innovative architecture with state-of-the-art acoustics and video programming.
While this new class of auditoriums, performing arts centers, and concert halls prove that a theater can take many forms, they all underscore one belief: Now—more than ever—the arts matter.
It’s in this spirit that we searched far and wide across the U.S. for the most architecturally significant theaters. From our country’s oldest continually operating opera house to a brand new building in Chicago, these are the 24 most beautiful theaters in America.
Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri
Opened in 2011, the Kauffman Center is a nearly 285,000-square-foot facility—designed by the internationally-renowned architect Moshe Safdie of Safdie Architects—with two main performance halls, each in the shape of a shell.
Safdie clad the shells in stainless-steel panels and connected the two venues with a 20-meter-high, glass-walled atrium that is anchored to the ground with steel cables. The glass facade also features panoramic views of Kansas City.
The Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan
When the Fox Theatre opened in September 1928, 5,000 people packed the space to see the second largest theater in the world. The 10-story mammoth building features red marble columns and was designed by architect Charles Howard Crane. A Detroiter who at one time worked for Albert Kahn, Crane also designed Orchestra Hall, the Capitol on Broadway, and the State on Woodward.
A gem of the robust Detroit theater scene, the Fox is also notable because it was the first in the world to be constructed with built-in equipment for talking movies. It was a flagship movie palace of the Fox Theatre chain, eventually landing on the National Register of Historic places and the list of National Historic Landmarks. Today, it’s the largest surviving movie palace of the 1920s and the original Fox Theaters.
The Central City Opera House in Central City, Colorado
Despite its rather diminutive size compared to other theaters, what the Central City Opera House lacks in seats it makes up for in history. Built in 1878 by Welsh and Cornish gold miners, this stone concert hall has hosted performances for decades and is the nation’s fifth-oldest opera company.
Designed by Denver architect Robert S. Roeschlaub, the 550-seat opera house found a home in this tiny Colorado town thanks to Central City’s reputation as “the richest square mile on earth.” But once the gold mines ran out, the building fell into disrepair from the late 19th century until 1932. A volunteer effort led to the extensive restoration and reopening of the opera hall. Today, it hosts one of the most successful summer opera festivals in the country.
Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California
Designed by San Francisco architect Timothy L. Pflueger and completed in 1931, the Paramount Theatre in Oakland is a top-notch example of Art Deco design. Originally a movie palace in the 1930s, the Paramount suffered from three decades of neglect and decline. In 1972, the Oakland Symphony purchased the building in order to restore it to its former glory.
The theater is now on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark with all of the modern technology of a performance theater. It houses the Oakland Symphony as well as an ever-rotating lineup of concerts and shows.
Radio City Music Hall in New York, New York
No list of architecturally significant theaters would be complete without mention of New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, one of the most iconic performance venues in the United States.
Built in 1932 and developed as part of Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall was designed in the Art Deco style by architect Edward Durell Stone and industrial designer Donald Deskey, who did the interiors.
The theater is superlative in multiple ways: It is the largest indoor theater in the world, and features the largest stage curtain—in shimmering gold—in the world. Many people also consider it to be one of the most perfectly equipped stages ever built.
Durham Performing Arts Center in Durham, North Carolina
The completion of this nationally renowned 2,800-seat theater designed by Chapel Hill-based Szostak Design Inc. has helped rehabilitate a former industrial brownfield site in downtown Durham. Beyond its light-filled and airy design, the Durham Performing Arts Center is also notable for coming in under budget at a total project cost of $46 million—less than half the price of comparable venues.
The building features multilevel glass walls with a day-lit lobby and views of the city skyline. Two intricate staircases and a white-and-red color palette animate the space, encouraging guests up and through the lobby.
Kleinhans Music Hall in Buffalo, New York
Designed by the famous Finnish father-and-son team of Eliel and Eero Saarinen, along with architects F.J. and W.A Kidd, the Kleinhans Music Hall combines both elegant structural beauty with extraordinary acoustics. The shape of the exterior brick structure and the main auditorium resemble the body of a string instrument, and Eliel Saarinen’s aim was to create “an architectural atmosphere…so as to tune the performers and the public alike into a proper mood of performance and receptiveness, respectively.”
The result has been lauded as one of the most acoustically perfect halls in the world since it opened in 1940. It sits in a leafy neighborhood and the drum-like concert hall reflects off a peaceful pool with no windows or entrances visible. It’s a peaceful, graceful take on theater design.
Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Tennessee
Nashville might be internationally known for its country music, but this neoclassical concert hall proves that the Tennessee capital also boasts a thriving classical music scene. Located in downtown Nashville’s Sobro neighborhood, the venue hosts a wide range of musical events and is home to the Nashville Symphony.
The 1,800-seat venue, which opened in 2006, is one of the few to enjoy natural light through 30 soundproof windows. The design might look similar to the 19th-century concert halls of Europe, but the technology is anything but dated: An advanced system of movable banners and panels can adjust the acoustics to accommodate different musical genres and sounds. The concert hall also features a convertible seating system.
The Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California
Home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Walt Disney Concert Hall presents classical music, contemporary music, and jazz to culture lovers from Los Angeles and beyond.
The distinctive building was designed by Frank Gehry as a series of undulating stainless-steel curves that symbolize musical movement and the motion of Los Angeles. Inside, the towering column-free concert hall is awash in warm hues, its acoustics are top-notch, and one wall features an elaborate organ made from a bouquet of 6,134 curved pipes.
For more on the Walt Disney Concert Hall, head over to Curbed Los Angeles.
The War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, California
The San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center is a massive complex with a combined capacity of almost 7,000 seats. But our favorite building remains the War Memorial Opera House.
Designed by Arthur Brown, Jr.—the same architect who designed San Francisco City Hall—the War Memorial Opera House was one of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the U.S. when it opened in 1932. Grand columns, ornate details, and a main lobby with a soaring, 38-foot-high ceiling all serve as both a monument to those who served in World War I and a fitting home for the San Francisco Opera.
The Egg in Albany, New York
It’s no wonder why this venue in Albany is called what it is: The sculpture-like building looks just like an egg on a pedestal. But the Egg’s architecture is more complex than it might seem. Designed by the midcentury New York City-based firm Harrison & Abramovitz as part of the Empire State Plaza project, the Egg took 12 years to build and opened in 1978 with two theaters.
While it looks like the egg is perched on its base, the stem that holds the oval is actually rooted six stories into the ground. The exterior’s curved lines continue inside and the structure lacks any straight lines or harsh corners.
Instead, interior walls curve upward to meet concave ceilings, and the backs of performing areas are fanned to create a more intimate, inviting atmosphere. These unique features have made the Egg an important piece of New York architecture history.
Saenger Theatre in New Orleans, Louisiana
Built for a hefty $2.5 million dollars in 1929, the Saenger Theater was described in its heyday as “an acre of seats in a garden of Florentine splendor.” The elaborate decor conjures up a 15th-century Italian villa and courtyard, and the theater’s most striking feature is its blue domed “sky” ceiling with twinkling stars.
According to the Saenger Theatre website, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the theater in 2005, but a $53 million revitalization project restored the building to its former glory, allowing it to reopen in 2013. Today, the theater hosts Broadway shows, concerts, comedians, and events.
Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas, Texas
As one of iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s last buildings and one of his only surviving theaters, the Kalita Humphreys Theater is a stunning addition to the architecture of Dallas, Texas.
The building features a circular stage drum that extends above the main structure and exemplifies Wright’s organic philosophy. Curved walls dominate the design and the stage itself sits on a turntable that allows multiple scenes and sets to be set up at the same time.
Curious about Wright’s other buildings? We’ve mapped 40 of his most important structures over here.
The Theatre at Ace in Los Angeles, California
First opened in late 1927, the United Artists Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles was designed by noted theater architect C. Howard Crane and commissioned by United Artists, the film industry powerhouse founded by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith.
After serving as the headquarters for a church from 1989 through 2009, the stunning Spanish Gothic-style building is now part of the Ace Hotel, but is still available for concerts, premieres, private screenings, and performances.
That’s a good thing, because we wouldn’t want to miss out on the theater’s ornate vaulted ceilings, intricate metalwork, painted murals, and the massive dome above the center of the auditorium, covered in thousands of mirrored discs and crystal pendants.
For more on the Theatre at Ace, head over to Curbed Los Angeles.
Writers Theatre in Chicago, Illinois
Located in Chicago’s North Shore village of Glencoe, this new building for the nationally recognized Writers Theatre opened in 2016 in an effort to broaden the institution’s exposure and attract new patrons.
The Studio Gang-designed building includes two new performance spaces in the form of a 250-seat main stage and a smaller "black-box" venue that can be configured to accommodate between 50 and 99 visitors. The structure’s most interesting element is the raised loggia enclosed by a wooden latticework that houses an airy and multi-purpose lobby space.
For more on the Writers Theatre, head over to Curbed Chicago.
Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, New York
Brooklyn’s largest theater underwent a $94 million restoration recently after four decades of decay had lain waste to the neglected structure. Originally built in 1929, the Loew’s King Theatre was an icon of its time, a spectacle built for movies and live performances.
But with the rise of multiplexes in the 1970s, the single-screened Kings couldn’t compete. It was forced to close due to low attendance, high maintenance costs, and the decline of the surrounding neighborhood.
Now, the theater is back and better than ever, revived with original plaster and painting schemes, vintage carpet and seating, historic lighting fixtures, and all the finest new technology.
Head over to Curbed NY for more.
The Fisher Center in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
Located at Bard College in New York, the $62 million Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts was designed by Frank Gehry and opened in 2003. In total, the building comprises 107,000 square feet and is made of fir veneer, concrete, stainless-steel shingles that cover the roof, and over 1,000 tons of conventional and curved steel.
The building’s most striking feature is its front facade. According to Gehry, the design represents “a theatrical mask that covers the raw face of the performance space” and prepares the visitor for the performances that occur within.
The Academy of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Owned by the Philadelphia Orchestra Association, the Academy of Music is over 150 years old and is known as the “Grand Old Lady of Locust Street.” First opened in 1857, the building was modeled after Milan’s La Scala and is the oldest continually operating concert hall in the United States.
Built in the Roman Corinthian style and designed by architect Napoleon LeBrun, the Academy of Music recently underwent extensive work to restore the theater to its original form. Now, the large frescos, gold ornamentation, and glass chandeliers shine just as bright as they did in the 1860s. Outside, the building’s brick and brownstone exterior is a testament to Philadelphia’s rich history.
Kresge Auditorium in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Although its swooping lines look similar to some of today’s modern buildings, MIT’s Kresge Auditorium dates back to 1955. It was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen and has been cited as an example of the optimistic zeitgeist of Post-war America.
Saarinen—who also designed the TWA terminal and the St. Louis Gateway Arch—used his sculptural background to create the auditorium, one of the United States’s first large-scale thin-shell concrete buildings.
The truncated dome looks a bit like a leaf, and the building has been praised for both its elegance and for the transparent, full-height windows on either side. Inside, there are no bad seats thanks to a lack of interior supports for the overarching dome. Today, the hall hosts MIT’s performing arts productions, events, and more.
New World Center in Miami, Florida
Home to the New World Symphony—an orchestral academy under the artistic direction of its co-founder and Grammy award-winning conductor Michael Tilson Thomas—Miami’s New World Center is an architectural standout in the heart of South Beach.
Another gem designed by Frank Gehry, the concert hall opened in 2011 in an effort to break down the barriers between performers and the public. As the New York Times writes, New World Center aims to “pump new life into an art form that is often perceived as stuffy and old-fashioned.”
Thus, a rather subdued exterior (at least by Gehry’s standards) gives way to a stunning 756-seat performance hall, where Gehry designed large acoustically reflective “sails” that surround the audience and serve as video projection surfaces. The concert hall also features a 2.5-acre space that holds events for the public.
Orpheum Theater in Phoenix, Arizona
Located in downtown Phoenix, the 1,364-seat Orpheum Theater was originally constructed in 1929 and went through several incarnations under different owners.
The unusual, Spanish Baroque-style building features huge, detailed murals that aim to give visitors the impression that they are enjoying performances al fresco. The building currently houses an eclectic mix of theatre, live music, dance, and comedy and reopened in 1997 after an extensive $14 million restoration.
Wagner Noël Performing Arts Center in Midland, Texas
Owned by the University of Texas, the building features architecture inspired by the geology of the Permian Basin, Texas’s petroleum-producing region. It stands out in the desert landscape and includes a state-of-the-art, 1,800-seat main concert hall and a 200-seat recital hall.
The Alex Theatre in Glendale, California
A temple to all things Art Deco, the 1,413-seat Glendale theater, built in 1925, originally hosted vaudeville performances, silent movies, and local plays. It operated until the 1980s, when the Alex was forced to close after several years of decline. The Glendale Redevelopment Agency purchased the theater in 1992 and spent $6.2 million restoring it to its former splendor.
The iconic architecture—with its Egyptian-Greek-American overtones—has been preserved. Today, the theater is also the home to the Glendale Youth Orchestra and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
Designed by Bing Thom Architects and completed in 2010, D.C.’s reinvented Arena Stage doubled the size of the facility and upgraded the theater’s technology and amenities. Inside, the architects restored the two existing historic theaters—including the original theater in the round—and added a new 200-seat experimental theater in the shape of an oval.
Outside, a dramatic sloping roof and glass structure presides over the three theaters and offers views of the adjacent Washington Channel and Washington Monument.
Upset that your favorite theater, concert hall, opera house, or performing arts center didn’t make the list? We know there are many more worthy candidates. Let us know which buildings we missed—and why you love them—in the comments.