Location: 204 5th Ave SE
Downtown National Historic District; Wohleb

AR-S411-5thave-1942-jeffers5th Avenue looking west, with Capitol Theater, 1942, Vibert Jeffers, Susan Parish Collection, Washington State Archives
Capitol Theater today (2014), photo by Deb Ross

The Capitol Theater is one of Olympia’s most treasured and iconic buildings. It was erected in 1924 with a design by Joseph Wohleb. Beginning in the early 20th century, the Zabel family built a succession of theaters downtown, including the Ray, the Rex, the Lyric, and the Strand. These theaters had live entertainment, moving pictures, and slide shows. The Capitol Theater was the crowning achievement of the Zabels. Its facade includes ornate terra cotta decorations, stained glass windows depicting each of the five muses, and marble flooring.  Anticipating some of today’s theater design features, Zabel installed special seating for parents of small children, assisted-hearing devices, and even an extra-wide seat to accommodate a larger patron.

Over the years, the building has suffered damage, alterations, and deterioration. A 1937 fire caused extensive interior damage. In the 1940s the rectangular marquee seen in the 1942 Jeffers image at above left was added. The 2001 earthquake damaged the ceiling plaster. In 2008, the 1940 marquee was removed and a new vertical sign similar to the original was installed, opening up the entire facade to public view. The theater is still in the process of being lovingly restored by the Olympia Film Society, which now owns the building. The building is in the Downtown National Historic District and listed as Historic Contributing. 

The annex to the west is considered part of the same complex; while not as elaborate as the theater building, it has many elegant and historic features. The building extends down Washington Street with several storefronts. For many years, John Clemons had a tailoring business under the name John the Tailor (see also Clemons House)

According to historian Bernice Sapp, this was also the location of an early Odd Fellows Lodge, where teacher Mary O’Neill also held classes. However, the official history of the Olympia lodges makes no mention of this. A photograph from Robert Esterly’s 1914 series of Olympia’s businesses shows this as the location of the Otis & Brown Insurance Company and Emma McNair’s Millinery shop.

Thank you to Gail Hemmann for additional information about the theater’s history.


Washington State Historical Society photograph of John the Tailor, enter the following catalog number in collection search box  C1981.29X.2; 2010.149.21.1 (Otis & Brown, McNair Millinery)

Olympia Downtown National Historic District

Olympia Heritage inventory

Cinema Treasures

ThurstonTalk article about Capitol Theater, accessed April 11, 2014

Sapp, Olympia 100 Years ago

Copyright © 2022 Deborah Ross