Shanklin’s Grand Theatre today
February is Black History Month and cannot go by without mentioning John Clavon Norman, Sr., the second African-American to become a licensed architect in the state of West Virginia. In 1919, Norman settled in Charleston, where he opened an office in the Knights of Pythias building at the corner of Washington and Dickinson streets and worked for 45 years designing homes and commercial building throughout Kanawha County and around Fayette County and elsewhere.
One of those “elsewhere” places is Shanklin’s Grand Theatre in Ronceverte (the only art deco theatre in Greenbrier County). Called the “centerpiece of the town,” the theatre offered seating for 158 people with a neon marquee that was the largest in the state. Norman utilized new materials, new designs and new equipment in the now historic building. Built in 1937, at a time when Ronceverte was a bustling little city, Shanklin’s Grand Theatre was state of the art.
The Grand Theatre was built to last. It contains 60 tons of steel with walls comprised of reinforced steel concrete, two miles of electric wiring, and 210 square feet of vitrolite facing. Vitrolite is a material made only in West Virginia but is no longer made today.
The theatre was a segregated structure, even having two sets of stairs so the whites didn’t have to use the same entrance as the blacks. In an article at traveling219.com written in 2011, Wyatt Bair, a Greenbrier Episcopal School student at the time, remarked, “Imagine how conflicting it must’ve been being an African American architect and having to design a building that was segregated.”
Born in New Jersey in 1892, Norman was raised in North Carolina, attending NC. Agricultural and Technical State Institute. Norman served in the U. S. Army Calvary Engineers during World War I. After the war, he took postgraduate courses in architecture and structural engineering at Carnegie Technical Institute in Pittsburgh, PA. In the late 1920s, Norman began a relationship with West Virginia State College (now University) at Institute. In addition to teaching part time, he designed and oversaw several renovation projects at West Virginia State, including ten faculty houses and the construction of an auditorium/gymnasium at the West Virginia Colored Deaf and Blind School. Norman was the architect for numerous projects erecting hotels, high schools, theatres, hospitals and churches around the state. He also spent almost three years working on classified construction projects related to the war effort during World War II.
John C. Norman married Ruth Stephenson in 1924, and they had one son, John C. Norman, Jr., a well known cardiovascular surgeon. John senior died in 1967.
The once grand theatre in Ronceverte is now in a state of disrepair and has not been in use since the 1960s. The roof has fallen in and the doors and windows boarded up. For a while the structure housed WRON Radio studio on the second floor and later the structure was converted to apartments. The Ronceverte Development Corporation intends to purchase the property, which sits in the heart of Ronceverte’s downtown area, to protect it from demolition. Future plans include restoring the theater for public use and as a community college cinema arts classroom.