Detroit landmark: Wayne State University’s Bonstelle Theatre


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sarah rigg

If you’ve ever seen Wayne State University’s Bonstelle Theatre and thought it looked like a temple, you’re right. The building located at 3424 Woodward Ave. was original the home of the Temple Beth El synagogue and designed by congregation member Albert Kahn, who meant for the Beaux Arts building to bring to mind Roman and Greek temples.

Kahn was known for specializing in industrial architecture and was sometimes called “The Architect of Detroit.” He also designed the Art Deco Fisher Building in Detroit but is best known in Michigan for designing several facilities for Ford, including Ford’s Highland Park plant and the River Rouge complex.


Photo by Andrew Jameson

Construction on the building began in April of 1902, and the congregation held its first service there in January of 1903. However, by 1922, the congregation had outgrown the Woodward Avenue location, and they built a newer, bigger synagogue further north in Detroit.

The congregation sold their old building to Eugene Sloman, who purchased it for Jessie Bonstelle —a pioneering actress and theater director of the time — to make the former synagogue into a center for the arts. Architect C. Howard Crane was hired to convert the building into a theater, called the Bonstelle Playhouse at that time.

In 1928, Bonstelle changed the name to the Detroit Civic Theatre, making it one of the nation’s first civic theaters. It closed in 1933, partly due to Bonstelle’s death, but also due to the growing popularity of motion pictures. In the late 1930s, it was used as a movie house, called the Mayfair Motion Picture Theater.

In the 1950s, the theater space was taken over by Wayne State University. The university began renting the building as a performance space in 1951 and purchased it in 1956, naming it, once again, after Jessie Bonstelle. The theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

Today, the Bonstelle is the home of the university’s undergraduate theater program, which produces a series of theatrical and musical events every year in the 1,200-seat theater. The last production of 2016 at the Bonstelle Theatre is slated to be “A Christmas Carol,” based on the Charles Dickens story, running from Dec. 2-18.

To learn more about the history and architecture of the Bonstelle Theatre, visit http://www.historicdetroit.org/building/bonstelle-theatre/. To find out what’s playing at the Bonstelle, visit WSU’s theater website, http://theatreanddance.wayne.edu/theatre.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in southeast Michigan. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Author: Sarah Rigg

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