Born in Harrisburg, PA, J. B. McElfatrick studied architecture and engineering with his father Edward McElfatrick. In 1851 he launched an independent practice in Harrisburg and Philadelphia; however, soon he was traveling west, hitting such cities as Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis. In 1855 he began building theatres and remained with that specialty, designing theatres all across the country from his office in New York City. By the 1880s he was working with his sons William H. McElfatrick and John Morgan McElfatrick (1853-1891) in J. B. McElfatrick & Son. According to Edward B. Kinsila's Modern Theatre Construction (1917):
The greatest individual strides in American theatre construction have been effected through the personal endeavors of a single architect, Mr. J. B. McElfatrick of New York City, who should be revered as the Father of American theatres. Thirty years ago theatres in this country were designed and constructed along the same lines as their English prototypes. They had the same subdivision of the seating on the main floor: the American distinction between the parquet and parquet circles coresponding to the English separation into stalls and pit. They had the same lyre-shaped balcony, the same stage projection or apron, and the same extravagant and distracting ornamentation. Mr. McElfatrick, who had never visited Europe, changed all of this, and to him was intrusted the designing of most of the new American theatres of his day. He perfected the sight lines, arranged the seating to be continuous from front to back on the main floor, and made the balconies flatter and deeper. The useless projecting apron of the stage also disappeared in his designs. Since the death of this genial old gentleman theatre designing has not substantially advanced in this country, except perhaps for a marked tendency toward simple decoration. Theatres have multiplied in number, but they are all more or less replicas of the McElfatrick mode.
According to Andrew Craig Morrison,
the McElfatrick firm's major contribution to the art of theatre design was that it was able to place professionally designed, well built, relatively fireproof theatres in towns and cities across the country. Over and over one finds that the new McElfatrick theatre is the first in the city to be built on the ground floor, the first to have multiples exits, the first to have proper dressing rooms, the first to have sprinklers, etc.
Sandra L. Tatman.
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