Captivating Photos Of America’s Abandoned Theaters

Julia Solis finds beauty and drama in decaying performance spaces around the country.

Julia Solis is an unabashed ruins aesthete. But unlike many of her ruin-porn compatriots, she hunts down one particular kind of treasure: abandoned theaters. She enters decrepit buildings, often on the verge of collapse, through their “crumbling hallways, past shuttered bedrooms, eerie basements, and coldly gleaming operating rooms,” in search of her personal holy grail: “What a relief it is to then open the double doors along one of these corridors and suddenly see a bright and colorful theater, its stage topped by an ornamental proscenium that continues to sparkle like a candy wrapper long after its contents have been devoured.”


You probably won’t experience any emotion akin to relief while looking at Solis’s photos, collected in her new book, Stages of Decay. But you probably won’t be immune to their enchanting eeriness–performance spaces once devoted to communal entertainment now devoid of people and left to rot like a post-apocalyptic landscape. These places aren’t the casualties of wars or natural disasters but, most likely, of economic and societal factors that forced the facilities to close their doors and then fell victim to human neglect.

Solis isn’t drawn solely to ornate movie theaters (though those, she rightly points out, stand the best chance of being restored and reused) but any space containing a stage, including schools, psychiatric hospitals, and jailhouses. In fact, the stage itself–the former site of all the dramatic action–is always the focal point. “While the other details in a deteriorating theater can be just as visually appealing,” she writes, “it was the actual spectacle presenting itself in the abandoned space that captivated me the most.”

And in some of the smaller, uglier venues, Solis maintains, the detritus actually enhances the scenery: “Each stage, whether in a historic vaudeville theater, church, or former military complex, is guaranteed to have its share of drama–we have only to watch The Shining to know that the possible narratives unfolding in a vacant hotel ballroom might be even more intriguing than the history of a million-dollar cinema.”

But the drama also plays out in the surrounding theater, as moisture invades the walls and causes the paint to peel off the walls, plaster decorations crumble to the floor, and velvet seats become dusty and mildewed. The theater, according to Solis, is the protagonist “performing its own demise.”

Buy Stages of Decay here for $24.


About the author

A former editor at such publications as WIRED, Bloomberg Businessweek, and Fast Company, Belinda Lanks has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer, Interior Design, and ARTnews.