Chateau Memories — a third-generation Rochesterite reflects on her family’s role in construction and maintenance of the historic theater

Lifelong Rochester resident and Mayo Clinic employee Rebecca Peterson's family has unique ties to the Chateau Theater on Peace Plaza--her grandfather plastered the original cityscape inside the auditorium, and her father worked on a mid-century restoration.
Lifelong Rochester resident and Mayo Clinic employee Rebecca Peterson has unique ties to the Chateau Theater on Peace Plaza: Her grandfather plastered the original cityscape inside the auditorium, and her father worked on a mid-century restoration.

Rebecca Peterson reflects fondly on the one-of-a-kind auditorium inside the Chateau Dodge Theatre, wading into childhood memories of stars twinkling overhead as she and her siblings settled in for a Disney triple feature. That was about 40 years ago, when First Street was still open to downtown traffic and the Chateau Theatre was in the regular business of showing movies.

“I remember just sitting there looking up at the stars,” Peterson said. “I probably didn’t get much out of the movie at all.”

A collection of photographs of the Chateau Dodge Theatre from the National Register of Historic Places. All but one were taken in 1980 by photographer Elizabeth Hall of the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, as the society was preparing the theater’s application to the National Register. The first image was taken around 1925 and appears on a postcard from Co-Mo Co., a now-defunct Minneapolis-based postcard distributor, according to the Register. The complete set is available from the Register’s digital archives, accessible through the Database/Research page.

Her older sister had taken Peterson and their only brother to the movies—a memorable outing for any kid sister—but the magical atmosphere and family connections to the Chateau are what stand out for Peterson 45 years later.

Peterson’s grandfather plastered the medieval cityscape inside the auditorium during the theater’s original construction in the late 1920s, and her father worked the plaster trowels on a mid-century restoration.

Particularly impressive is the skilled craftsmanship and artwork that went into plasterwork in the Chateau’s ornately detailed interior. The National Register of Historic Places describes it thus:

The theater interior is designed in the “atmospheric” mode, including an extraordinarily elaborate plaster fantasy design reminiscent of medieval European architecture, with balconies, turrets, battlements, gates, and arches. The proscenium arch was expressed “as a bridge over a waterway silhoutted against the sky,” according to J. Raymond Corwin, the designer. The ceiling was indeed designed as a sky, with a cloud machine projecting floating clouds against a sky-blue background. Twinkling lights in the ceiling simulate stars.

National Register of Historic Places' listing for the Chateau Dodge Theatre
This document from the National Register of Historic Places details the architectural and cultural significance of the Chateau Dodge Theatre.

To many in and around Rochester, the Chateau Theater on Peace Plaza holds special memories with personal stories. To many more, the Chateau has served as a entertaining diversion from clinic visits and busy itineraries.

The theater has become such a cornerstone of downtown Rochester that some area residents got together in 1979 to found the Worldwide Friends of the Chateau Theatre. Rochester activist and local business owner John Kruesel was among the founding members, according to the Post Bulletin.

Kruesel recently told the Post Bulletin that a repurposed Chateau Theatre needs to be a community space for all to enjoy.

“This needs to be a gathering space, ideally open 24 hours a day, for all our visitors that come here,” Kruesel said. “Turn it into (a space) for seminars, for vaudeville, for small players. Extend the size of the stage and use it as a move venue for matinees.”

Modern images of the Chateau, depicting preservation of the structure’s unique interior design, even after conversion to a Barnes & Noble book store. The store has since closed and the building remained vacant and locked since December of last year. The City of Rochester is now preparing to purchase the Chateau, through budget adjustments and a $500,000 donation from Mayo Clinic. Discussions are currently underway about how to use the building when it is reopened.

When asked how Peterson would like to see the Chateau used, she pauses, then says she has yet to make up her mind—there are so many different ways the theater could serve the community. But she is certain about one thing: she wants to see it become a space where people can gather and enjoy unique architecture and entertainment, much as they did 88 years ago when her grandfather put the finishing touches on the medieval village that still stands today.