Efforts fail to save historic Alaskan theater from demolition

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Demolition is scheduled to begin this week on a once-opulent movie theater in downtown Anchorage designed by the architect of Hollywood’s famed Pantages Theater.

Anchorage businessman Austin “Cap” Lathrop opened the nearly 1,000-seat 4th Avenue Theater on May 31, 1947, with a performance of “The Jolson Story.” The art deco theater became the centerpiece of the downtown historic district. But the last movie was shown more than 40 years ago, and the building was empty for nearly half that time.

The building’s current owners say that returning the building to a usable location after sitting empty for more than 15 years is too expensive, among other problems, and that its use as a single-screen movie theater is an outdated business model.

Instead, building owners Derrick Chang and Terence Chang said in a statement earlier this year that they will try to save the impressive artwork inside the building and the iconic 4th Avenue art deco neon sign and incorporate them into a new development plan. $200 remodel for the block to include housing, office space, a hotel, shopping and entertainment.

The Changs did not respond to messages from The Associated Press.

“It’s a very important building, architecturally, its association with Cap Lathrop and as a historical icon in Anchorage itself,” said Judith Bittner, the state’s historic preservation officer. “I think the interior and exterior are unique and worth preserving.”

Efforts over the years to save the theater were unsuccessful, including an unsuccessful initiative by voters to provide funding.

Some of those who have fought to preserve the five-story, nearly 11,500-square-foot (1,068-square-meter) building are realizing that efforts to save the theater are over, especially after a fence went up around the theater this week. week. and traffic was restricted around the building.

“I think it’s a foregone conclusion that this is the end of it,” said Trish Neal, president of the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation. “I think there are grieving people all over the state and beyond.”

Sam Combs, a historic preservation architect, added: “It’s going to destroy the historic center of our city.”

Lathrop was making a substantive statement when he began construction on the theater in 1941, two years after the US Census put Anchorage’s population at around 3,500. Alaska was still a territory at the time, long before Anchorage became the state’s largest city and an aviation hub between the US and Asia.

Alaska’s future was unclear at the time, but Bittner said Lathrop had a vision that Alaska would become something, and he put his considerable fortune behind that belief.

“In a sense, it was a comment to 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, including the iconic Hollywood theater in 1929, was hired to design Anchorage’s new movie house. Work began in 1941 but stopped during World War II.

The interior was lush, with high-end decor and love seats at the ends of alternating rows.

A gold leaf mural of Alaska’s Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America now called Denali, adorned the lobby.

Silver and gold murals featuring Alaskan scenes by Anthony Heinsbergen and Frank Bouman of Los Angeles were featured in the main theater. Two floor-to-ceiling murals framed the stage and screen, according to the Friends of the Fourth Avenue Theater website. Twinkling lights illuminated the constellations of the Big Dipper and the North Star on the ceiling.

However, the theater was missing an important detail. Lathrop thought the concession stands were unseemly and did not include one, forcing children to visit Woolworth’s down the block to stock up on sweets before going to the movies.

The building was more than a movie theater. Lathrop’s radio and television stations had their studios there, plus there was office space and a penthouse on the fourth floor. The fifth floor was not added until around 1960 and was converted to a penthouse.

The building is solid with a lot of concrete poured in, Bittner said.

“It was built to last,” he said. “They’re going to have a challenge knocking down some of that concrete.”

That solid foundation could be one of the reasons the theater remained standing as Anchorage’s streets and buildings collapsed after the 1964 Good Friday magnitude 9.2 earthquake, which is the second-strongest earthquake on record.

The 4th Avenue Theater’s movie projectors fell silent in the 1980s, and the building was used as an event venue during the early part of this century.

Neal said one remaining hope for saving the building from the wrecking ball is if Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy declares it a state historic site and seeks 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 the Alaskan Theater 4th Avenue are protected and preserved for future generations. Bittner said in a July 12 letter to Dunleavy obtained by the AP.

“The Governor’s office never received the letter from the historical commission. So there is no official request,” Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner said Thursday in an email to the AP.

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson supports the changes for downtown, said his spokesman, Corey Allen Young.

“The Mayor supports plans to bring new development and life to 4th Avenue in regards to the historic nature of the theater. The developers have agreed to preserve as much of the artwork as possible and recreate the historic sign on 4th Avenue,” he said in an email.

Bitner said he appreciates the Changs’ efforts to save the iconic sign and murals, but no matter how it’s used in the future, it will be art and not part of a building.

“The context in which they were created is gone,” he said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”