ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Demolition of a once opulent movie theater in downtown Anchorage designed by the architect of Hollywood’s famed Pantages Theater is slated to begin this week.
Anchorage entrepreneur Austin “Cap” Lathrop opened the nearly 1,000-seat 4th Avenue Theater on May 31, 1947 with a screening of “The Jolson Story.” The Art Deco theater became the centerpiece of the downtown historic district. But the last film was shown over 40 years ago and the building has been empty for almost half of that time.
The building’s current owners say that, among other things, it is too costly to move the building back to a usable location after it has been vacant for more than 15 years, and that using it as a single-screen cinema is an outdated business model.
Instead, building owners Derrick Chang and Terence Chang said in a statement earlier this year that they will seek to salvage the building’s stunning artwork and iconic art deco 4th Avenue neon sign and convert them to a new $200 Include redevelopment plan for the block This includes apartments, office space, a hotel, retail and entertainment facilities.
The Changs did not respond to messages from The Associated Press.
“It’s a very significant building architecturally, in association with Cap Lathrop, and as a historical icon in Anchorage itself,” said Judith Bittner, the State Heritage Commissioner. “I think the interior and exterior are unique and worth preserving.”
Efforts over the years to save the theater were unsuccessful, including a failed voter initiative to provide funding.
The realization that efforts to save the theater are over is sinking in for some who fought to save the five-story, 1,068-square-foot building, especially after fences were erected around the theater this week and traffic was blocked around it Restricted around buildings.
“I think it’s a foregone conclusion that this is the end,” said Trish Neal, president of the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation. “I think there are people grieving across the state and beyond.”
Sam Combs, a historic preservation architect, added, “It’s going to destroy our city’s historic center.”
Lathrop made a strong statement by beginning construction on the theater in 1941, two years after the US Census put Anchorage’s population at about 3,500. Alaska was still a territory back then, long before Anchorage became the state’s largest city and an air hub between the United States and Asia.
Alaska’s future was not clear at the time, but Bittner said Lathrop had a vision that something would become of Alaska — and he had poured his considerable fortune behind that belief.
“It was sort of a commentary on Alaska that said, ‘I believe in Alaska, I believe in its future, and we can aspire to greater things,'” Bittner said.
B. Marcus Priteca, a Seattle architect who designed theaters for Alexander Pantages in 1929, including the famous Hollywood theater, was commissioned to design the new movie theater in Anchorage. Work began in 1941 but was interrupted during World War II.
The interior was lavish, with high-end decor and love seats at the end of alternating rows.
A gold leaf mural of Alaska’s Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest mountain, now called Denali, graced the lobby.
Silver and gold murals depicting scenes from Alaska by Los Angeles’ Anthony Heinsbergen and Frank Bouman were on display in the main theater. According to the Friends of Fourth Avenue Theater website, two floor-to-ceiling murals framed the stage and screen. Sparkling lights illuminated the constellations of the Big Dipper and the North Star on the ceiling.
However, the theater was missing an important detail. Lathrop didn’t like concession stands and didn’t have one, which forced the kids to visit Woolworth’s down the block to stock up on candy before going to the movies.
The building was more than just a cinema. Lathrop’s television and radio stations had their studios there, as well as office space and a fourth-floor loft. It was only around 1960 that the fifth floor was added and became a penthouse.
The building is solid with lots of poured concrete, Bittner said.
“It was built to last,” she said. “You’re going to have a challenge mining some of that concrete.”
This solid base may be one reason the theater remained standing while streets and buildings across Anchorage collapsed in the wake of the 9.2 Good Friday earthquake of 1964, the second-strongest earthquake on record.
The 4th Avenue Theater’s film projectors went silent in the 1980s, and the building was used as a performance venue by the early part of this century.
Neal said one remaining hope of saving the building from the wrecking ball is if Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy would designate it a state historic site and get the owners’ written consent for the designation.
“The Alaska Historical Commission urges you and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to take all actions necessary and authorized by the Alaska Constitution and the Alaska Historic Preservation Act to ensure that the historic character and value of 4th Avenue Theater is preserved for future… protected and preserved for generations,” Bittner said in a July 12 letter addressed to Dunleavy and obtained by AP.
“The governor’s office never received the historical commission’s letter. As such, there is no official request,” Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner said in an email to the AP on Thursday.
Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson supports the downtown changes, his spokesman Corey Allen Young said.
“The Mayor supports plans to bring new development and life to 4th Avenue while respecting the historic nature of the theater. The developers have agreed to preserve as much of the artwork as possible and to recreate the historic landmark on 4th Avenue,” he said in an email.
Bitner said she appreciates the Changs’ efforts to save the iconic sign and murals, but however it is used in the future, it will be art and not part of a building.
“The context in which they were created is gone,” she said. “What’s gone is gone forever.”
Mark Thiessen, The Associated Press