Efforts to save historic Alaska Theater from demolition fail

Demolition of a once opulent film about downtown Anchorage is slated to begin this week theatre designed by the architect of the famous Pantages Theater in Hollywood. 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.

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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to a usable location after it has been vacant for more than 15 years, and that using it as a single-screen cinema is an outdated business model.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 stunning artwork inside the building and the iconic art deco 4th Avenue neon sign, converting them to a new $200 million Dollar redevelopment plan to include the block includes apartments, offices, a hotelretail and entertainment venues.

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 inside and outside are unique and worth preserving.” Efforts over the years to save the theater have not been successful, including a failed voter drive to provide funding. Realizing that efforts to save the theatre are over is sinking in for some who fought to save the five-story, 1,068-square-foot building, especially after fencing was erected around the theater this week and traffic was restricted around the building.

“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 will destroy our city’s historic center.” Lathrop made a strong statement by beginning construction of the theater in 1941, two years after the U.S. Census counted Anchorage’s population had estimated about 3,500.

Alaska was a territory 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. Marcus Priteca, a Seattle architect who designed theaters for Alexander Pantages, owner of an early chain of theaters, including the famous Hollywood Theater in 1929, was commissioned to design the new 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.

Jeff Griffin (left) and RC Edwardsen board the 4th Avenue Theater in downtown Anchorage, Alaska. Demolition will begin in August 2022 (AP Photo/Al Grillo, file)

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. Two from floor to ceiling murals framed the stage and screen, according to the Friends of Fourth Avenue Theater website. 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 after the 1964 Good Friday magnitude 9.2 earthquake, 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 whether the Republican governor.

One of the gold and silver leaf murals of Alaska’s wildlife, industries and Mount McKinley hangs in the main room of the 4th Avenue Theater in Anchorage, Alaska (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File)

Mike Dunleavy would designate it as a State Historic Site and obtain written consent from the owners for 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 get as much of it as possible artwork as possible and recreate the historic landmark on 4th Avenue,” he said in an email. Bittner 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.”

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