Attempts fail to save Anchorage’s historic 4th Avenue Theater from demolition

Fencing surrounds the 4th Avenue Theater in Anchorage on Wednesdays. Demolition begins in August 2022 of the once lavish movie theater in downtown Anchorage designed by the architect of Hollywood’s famed Pantages Theater. The 4th Avenue Theater with nearly 1,000 seats opened in 1947 and withstood the second most powerful earthquake on record. (Mark Thiessen/AP)

Demolition is scheduled to begin this week at a once lavish movie theater in downtown Anchorage designed by the architect of Hollywood’s famed Pantages Theater.

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 historic city center. But the last film was shown more than 40 years ago, and the building has been vacant for nearly half of that time.

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The exterior of the theater in 1947. (Courtesy of Friends of 4th Avenue Theatre)

The building’s current owners say it’s too expensive to return the building to a usable location after being vacant for more than 15 years, among other problems, and that using it as a single-screen movie theater is a problem. outdated business model.

Instead, building owners Derrick Chang and Terence Chang said in a statement earlier this year that they will try to salvage the impressive artwork in the building and the iconic Art Deco neon sign on 4th Avenue and include it in a new $200 million redevelopment plan. for the block that includes housing, office space, a hotel, shops and entertainment venues.

RELATED: Developer plans to build $200 million project in downtown Anchorage, including tearing down 4th Avenue Theater

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

“It’s a very significant building architecturally, its association with Cap Lathrop and as a historic icon in Anchorage itself,” said Judith Bittner, the state 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 a failed voter initiative to provide funding.

Realization that efforts to save the theater are over is dawning on some who have fought to keep the five-story, nearly 11,500-square-foot building, especially after fences were erected around the theater this week and traffic around it was blocked. building was restricted.

“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 people are grieving all over the state and beyond.”

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

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Fencing surrounds the 4th Avenue Theater in Anchorage on Wednesdays. (Mark Thiessen/AP)

Lathrop made a substantive statement by beginning construction on the theater in 1941, two years after the U.S. census estimated the population of Anchorage at approximately 3,500. Alaska was a territory back then, long before Anchorage became the state’s largest city and an aviation hub between the US and Asia.

Alaska’s future wasn’t clear at the time, but Bittner said Lathrop had a vision that Alaska would become something — and he put his considerable fortune behind that belief.

“It was, in a sense, a comment to Alaska that said, ‘I believe in Alaska, I believe in its future, and we can aspire to greater things,'” Bittner said.

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One of the gold leaf murals hangs in the great hall of the 4th Avenue Theater on March 29, 2006. (Al Grillo/AP)

B. Marcus Priteca, a Seattle architect who designed theaters for early owner of the theater chain Alexander Pantages, which included the iconic Hollywood Theater in 1929, was hired to design the new movie theater in Anchorage. Work began in 1941, but was interrupted during World War II.

The interior was opulent, with high-quality furnishings 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 Alaskan scenes by Anthony Heinsbergen and Frank Bouman of Los Angeles were featured in the main theater. According to the Friends of the Fourth Avenue Theater website, two floor-to-ceiling murals framed the stage and screen. Twinkling lights illuminated the Ursa Major and North Star constellations from the ceiling.

However, the theater was missing one important detail. Lathrop thought concession stands were inappropriate and had none, forcing kids to visit the Woolworth’s at the end of the block to stock up on candy before going to the movies.

The building was more than just a movie theater. Lathrop’s TV and radio stations had their studios there, and the fourth floor had offices and an attic. The fifth floor was not added until about 1960 and became a penthouse.

The building is solid with lots of poured concrete, Bittner said.

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

That solid foundation could be one reason why the theater remained standing as streets and buildings across Anchorage collapsed after the 9.2 magnitude earthquake on Good Friday 1964, 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 until the early 1900s.

Neal said one of the remaining hopes of saving the building from the wrecking ball is if Republican government Mike Dunleavy declared it a state landmark and obtained written permission from its owners for the designation.

“The Alaska Historical Commission urges you and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to take all measures necessary and authorized by the Alaska Constitution and Alaska Historic Preservation Act to ensure that the historic character and value of the 4th Avenue Theater is protected and preserved for future generations. Bittner said in a July 12 letter addressed to Dunleavy and obtained by the AP.

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Jeff Griffin, left, and RC Edwardsen board the 4th Avenue Theater in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, May 22, 2009. Demolition begins in August 2022 of a once lavish movie theater in downtown Anchorage designed by the architect of Hollywood’s famed Pantages Theater. . The 4th Avenue Theater with nearly 1,000 seats opened in 1947 and withstood the second most powerful earthquake on record. (Al Grillo/AP)

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

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

“The mayor supports plans to revive 4th Avenue while respecting the theater’s historic character. The developers have agreed to preserve as much of the artwork as possible and recreate the historic landmark on 4th Avenue,” he said in an email.

Bitner said she appreciated 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 made is gone,” she said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

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