Undergraduate researcher explores architecture of Atlanta’s iconic Fox Theatre

By April Hunt | Emory Report | June 3, 2020

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Ever wonder about the Fox Theatre’s iconic design? Study abroad last summer in Spain and Morocco helped Rizky Etika analyze the architectural influences of the Atlanta landmark, which reflects both Islamic history and the late American industrial age.

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Atlanta’s Fox Theatre enchanted Rizky Etika as a child, even if she thought its Islamic décor was a bit cartoonish.

Last summer, Etika traveled to Spain and Morocco as a one of 10 annual Halle/Fox Global Research Fellows to analyze the Fox’s architectural influences. Only then did she realize how authentic the venue’s original design was meant to be — and how much popular culture informed the building.

“The Fox reflects two seemingly disparate times: a deep-rooted Islamic history and the late American industrial age,” says Etika, who graduated from Emory College of Arts and Sciences in May with a degree in art history and minor in Arabic.

“That shouldn’t work, but it does in its own odd way,” she adds. “The attempt to loyally recreate a Middle Eastern temple is probably a lot closer to Western history than they thought.”

Childhood fascination leads to international research

Etika has long been interested in Islamic art, both as a religious and cultural heritage. Raised Muslim, she was exposed to Islamic architecture every time she prayed in a mosque, even though the art in her native Bali centers more on Hindu temples and their elaborate walled compounds.

Her family moved to Atlanta when Etika was 6 years old, and her visits to Islamic buildings continued as she attended Al-Farooq Masjid in Midtown.

That exposure did little to ready her once she saw her first show at the Fox. The fantastical auditorium — with what appears to be two Moorish castles connected by an ancient stone bridge and a canopy meant to look like a large Bedouin tent — convinced her the theater had once been a mosque.

She entered Emory planning to pursue an international studies degree, hoping eventually to use her Arabic language skills working for the U.S. State Department. Studying art history, though, reignited her love of museums as well as her fascination with the Fox.

Art history professor Elizabeth Pastan suggested Etika research the theater after she took her course on Islamic art in spring 2019. The pair met weekly last fall, digging into the bibliography on Islamic monuments, probing records at the Fox and reading the curious literature surrounding the Atlanta Shriners and the phenomenon of 1920s entertainment palaces.

Etika’s fellowship with the Halle Institute for Global Research and the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry funded the international research portion of her project, to understand how the Fox came to be – and what exactly it is.

As some art historians and history buffs know, the building was in fact envisioned as a mosque. Or, at least that is what members of Atlanta’s Yaarab Shrine planned to call their proposed headquarters.

For the Shriners, there was no religious context to the term, or to its alternate “shrine temple.” Rather, it fit with how the Masonic fraternity saw its members as American gatekeepers to the East.

“What’s interesting about the Fox is that it has a legitimate reason to look the way it does. The Shriners travelled to Mecca specifically to search out architectural precedents,” says Christina Crawford, an assistant professor of art history who worked with Etika on the architectural segments of her research.

“The Fox’s ‘look’ opens up a whole series of questions, not the least of which is whether it is OK to create this fabulous Frankenstein civic building by cherry-picking details from buildings with religious purpose and function,” she adds.

Architectural homage to the Middle East

Etika’s research, including her travels abroad, revealed that it was French architect Ollivier Vinour who managed to deepen the aesthetic engagement. His design aimed to be loyal to the images he found in lithographs from Jerusalem, Egypt and Morocco and a postcard archive from a friend’s grand tour of the Middle East.

The result was less pure pastiche than a legitimate attempt at homage that borrowed architectural elements from several eras and countries.

“For as much as the Shriners had their own idea of authenticity they felt honored the Middle East, Vinour tried just as hard to be true to, if not the religious aesthetic, at least the cultural aesthetic,” Etika says.

In her travels to Fes and Casablanca, Etika found the metal lanterns, fountains and horseshoe arches that inspired the architect’s interior design. The Fox’s printed tiles are meant to look like intricate Zellige tiles, the 10th century Moroccan patterns created by assembling shattered tiles into new textures and colors.

In the Andalusian region of Spain, she saw how Vinour designed the theater’s exterior tan and cream striped bricks to mimic the Mezquita de Córdoba, the mosque that was converted into a Catholic cathedral starting in the late 1200s.

The architect’s attention to detail extended from the stencil and gilt on the low ceiling of the entry arcade to the intricately designed wood beams – made of plaster – and bronze and painted detail throughout the interior.

“Rizky navigated very effectively this comical aspect of what became an entertainment palace, to show it is somehow also very serious,” says Pastan, a specialist in Medieval art and architecture. “She found this was not mere Orientalizing but a much more serious – though idiosyncratic – engagement with Islamic form.”

From the Shriners to Hollywood

The Fox Theater continued to receive further embellishments before it even opened. Movie mogul William Fox retained the same extravagant Moorish design for his namesake movie palace that bankrupted the Shriners about halfway through construction.

The fraternity and businessman worked out a deal to turn the headquarters into the 1920s movie palace, with the “mosque” space set aside for Shriners meetings.

Fox expanded on the theme at times for function, incorporating necessities like a concessions area into the idea of an uncovered bazaar. He also allowed his wife to add an Egyptian ballroom and flourishes such as hieroglyphics and scarab beetles — a trendy look in the years after King Tut’s intact tomb was discovered in 1922 — to the mash-up of architecture and design.

The theater opened just months after the 1929 stock market crash, with opulent features that included ablution fountains, the feature some mosque courtyards include for ritual cleaning before prayer.

To this day, lost behind the lights of the Fox marquee and signage are the minaret towers and archways meant to convey entrance to an Islamic castle.

Even more lost: The three domes seen from the Ponce de Leon Avenue (side) door, meant to lead directly into a Shriners’ original mosque. The Shriners, and Vinour, had intended that to serve as the main entrance before the deal with Fox shifted its position to Peachtree Street and its new name.

“I never noticed the onion domes until I started this research and began to really pick out what they originally wanted to create,” Etika says. “If you’re going there, excited to see ‘Hamilton,’ the tiles and filigree all become part of the background and you don’t notice how hard they tried to be a faithful recreation of something that never existed in a single building.”

Etika completed the framework for her research before the shift to off-campus learning last spring. She will spend the next year as the Rosemary Magee Fellow in Emory’s Center for Creativity and the Arts before pursuing a planned PhD in art history, with an emphasis on Islamic art and architecture.

The Magee Fellowship will allow her to work within Atlanta’s broad arts community and, perhaps, further examine how much mosque remains in the Fox’s design.