219 East Main Street / Orpheum Theater / Rialto Theater

35.994068, -78.898761

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Looking northeast from Church St. and East Main St., 1890s.
(Courtesy Duke Archives)

Commercial development of the north side of the 200 block of East Main St. proceeded eastward from the commercial core. The western half of the block was developed by commercial structures by the 1890s, two of which are visible above.

The eastern half of the block converted to commercial somewhat later; the Malbourne Hotel and the Shevel Building were built in 1913. Between the two, a frame boarding house remained until sometime between 1916 and 1919, when the Orpheum Theater was built.


Looking northeast, ~1920
(Courtesy Durham County Library)

A nighttime view of the entrance to the Orpheum, looking north, 1923 (from the dates and days of the week.)
(Courtesy Durham County Library)

At some point in the 1920s, the Orpheum became a multi-story structure. Whether this coincided with conversion of the theater to "The Rialto" is unclear, but on 10.22.28, the Rialto theater (with Vitaphone!) opened.

With all the fanfare and Interest of an historical event. the Rialto theatre will introduce to the people of Durham today the invention that revolutionized the motion picture industry and enhanced the entertainment value of the scree, Vitaphone talking pictures.

The very same artists who thrilled a New York audience when Vitaphone made its debut in the center of the theatrical world will be present in the Vitaphone presentation program at the Rialto theatre where the device which had evoked the praises of scientists, editorialists, and artists will be displayed for the first time to the motion picture fans of this city.

Vitaphone, with its roster of famous artists such As Al Jolson, Fannie Brice, Gigli Martinelli, Talley, Carillo, Dolores COstello, Conrad Nagel. Irene Rich. Van Schenck, Winnio Lightner, Joe E. Brown, Lionel Barrymore, Mischa Elman, Rosa Raisa, Willie and Eugene Howard and Elsie Jamis has come to the Rialto theatre because the management desires to give local theatre goers the best that the amusement world affords. A new thrill never before known to local motion picture audiences awaits the people of this city when they see and hear Vitaphone talking pictures.
(From the Morning Herald, 10.22.28)

This photo shows the fire department is demostrating their new ladder truck in front of the Orpheum, ~1928. The structures visible in the 1890s photo can be noted further down the block in this picture. This may be from
(Courtesy Durham County Library)

Looking northwest, late 1920s
(Courtesy Durham County Library)

217 E. Main



(Courtesy the Herald-Sun)

The Rialto closed between 1968 and 1970.

(Courtesy the Herald-Sun)

(Courtesy the Herald-Sun)

These structures were taken by the city and demolished using urban renewal funds, along with the remainder of the block. To some extent, this entire block fell victim to the pipe dreams of an Oklahoma developer named - Barket, and the anxiousness of a city to do whatever it could to a attract a developer who promised a 40 story building to be constructed in downtown Durham on the block between E. Main, Church, N. Roxboro, and E. Parrish Sts.

Barket's rendering of the 40 story building to sit at 200 East Main St., 07.16.68
(Courtesy The Herald-Sun)

The on-again-off-again flirtation between the city and Mr. Barket persisted throughout the later half of the 1960s, until he finally pulled out, never to be heard from again.

In 1978, the city built a new courthouse on the block, which looms, Death-Star-like, over the street. It seems that they tried their best to emulate Barket's Folly, but could only afford the first ~5 stories.

Looking northeast, 2007.


The courthouse is actually 7 stories and the top floor is an unused county jail. I'm curious what the county is going to do with the building once the courts move to the new courthouse south of the railroad tracks. 

The assertion about the 40 story building being the catalyst for the destruction of these two blocks is completely true. This rendering of the proposed building was on the cover of the Sunday paper. And before you knew it, with nothing in their hands but this pipe dream, the buildings started to come down. Three theatres! A hotel! And so many little businesses including the amazing music store, The Record Bar. My father and I walked through all these abandoned buildings before they came down...so many wonderful buildings of a smaller scale that would have been great treasures and so desirable for small businesses today.
- Michael Penny

I've begun a new blog...
In this article there is a recollection about the Rialto...and its demise. You'll enjoy.

I've begun a new blog...
In this article there is a recollection about the Rialto...and its demise. You'll enjoy.


- Michael

- Michael

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