Rialto Center for the Arts historical photo


In the fall of 1916, a 925-seat theater, the Southeast’s largest movie house, opened in the Central Business District and the original theater district of Atlanta. The theater’s name was the Rialto, which is defined as exchange or marketplace. The Rialto continued to operate during the Depression and at one point in its history boasted the largest electric sign above the marquee south of New York City. In 1962, the original theater was torn down and a new 1,200-seat Rialto was erected on the same site. It was the first movie theater to be constructed in downtown Atlanta in 35 years and stayed open until 1989 before falling victim to a declining downtown economy.

In 1991, Dr. Richard Koehler, then director of the School of Music at Georgia State University, was approached by real estate consultant David Haddow about relocating the School to several vacant buildings in the block bounded by Forsyth, Luckie, Fairlie and Poplar streets. As an advocate for a downtown performing arts center, Dr. Koehler quickly sized up the opportunities offered by a move to the historic district. Here was a chance for Georgia State to make a major cultural contribution to the city with a first-class performance hall and, at the same time, the university could further weave itself into the fabric of downtown Atlanta.

Following a very successful $14 million fund-raising campaign, led by Georgia State University president Carl V. Patton and A.W. “Bill” Dahlberg, a GSU alumnus and president of the Southern Company, construction began in the fall of 1994 on the old Rialto Theater and the historic Haas-Howell and Standard Buildings. Extensive renovations were needed to make the Rialto a state-of-the-art concert and performance hall. The Rialto Center for the Performing Arts now boasts superb acoustics after the theater’s roof was raised 12 feet. Interior renovations include a larger lobby to handle patrons, box office facilities, ADA-accessible improvements, new stage with proscenium, orchestra pit and 833 new comfortable seats. The eight-floor Haas-Howell Building houses the backstage facilities, the Dahlberg Room (our Green Room), and administrative offices for the Rialto Center on the second and third floors.

In March 1996, the reopening of the 833-seat Rialto Center for the Performing Arts marked a turning point in the revitalization of the historic Fairlie-Poplar District of downtown Atlanta. Since the reopening of the Rialto, more than 1,000,000 patrons have experienced performances ranging from theatrical to dance to music offerings including world, jazz, blues, rock, and classical. The old Rialto Theater has been successfully transformed into a first-class performance venue and, true to its definition, the Rialto is once again a place where ideas and experiences in the arts are being exchanged.

Rialto design team

  • Architects – Gardner Spencer Smith Associates, ATL; Richard Rothman Associates, ATL
  • Acoustics – Klepper Marshall King, NY
  • Theater Systems – Jules Fisher/Joshua Dachs Associates, NY
  • Recording Studio – Walters-Storyk Design Group, NY
  • Construction – Watson/Winter Joint Venture, ATL