The role of a 20th-century movie palace in a 21st-century city

Assuming we could save the 4th avenue theater, what would we do with it?

For the 21st century, Anchorage’s landmark Fourth Avenue Theather has served as a symbol of Anchorage’s failure to preserve its heritage, a blemish on our downtown and its state of deterioration cements our status as a third-rate city.

With no official plans for anything resembling a restoration and recent acquisitions of adjacent parcels, the dormant Fourth Avenue Theater seems to be headed for the wrecking ball. The developers have been silent and claim the full demolition permit on file is for replacing the boiler but that remains to be seen.

Preservation groups like Friends of Fourth Avenue Theater and AAHP have made attempts to save the building through multiple channels, including working with the current owners and through it all there have been a lot of suggestions from the community on how the theater could be reused.

When discussing options for adaptive reuse, we always seem to hit a wall – quite literally. The theater was built for the sole purpose of showing films; the rear wall of the building is directly behind the screen which leaves no capacity for backstage space making a conversion to a live performance venue challenging, if not impossible.

For 15 years, the theater was run (unsuccessfully) as a catered event space by Robert Gottstein who had all the seats removed and unfortunately, didn’t save them. Gottstein who acquired the theater in a foreclosure auction in 1991 eventually lost the theater to foreclosure in 2006 after spending millions preserving and restoring the building as well as adding a commercial kitchen in the basement. Other historic (pre-Gottstein) uses include KTUU television studio in the basement, and radio station KENI.

Regrettably, in 2006, Anchorage voters rejected a $2M bond proposal to save the theater, leaving it open to be purchased by Peach Investments, developers seeking to build a highrise on an adjacent lot. Their initial publicly released plans showed that they had intended to demolish the theater and the Reed Building to add parking and better access for the new high rise from 4th Avenue. After significant public outcry over the plan, a different non-specific plan was released and they’ve since stated that they will “attempt to preserve elements” of the facade which could include the iconic sign but it’s a vague statement and can’t be perceived as any sort of promise (nor is it intended to be). It all comes down to what ends up making sense in the end, we’ll just have to wait and see.

So, what should we have done with it?

Sometimes the best answer is the most simple – Fourth Avenue Theater would best serve downtown Anchorage as a cinema. I’m definitely not saying it should be upgraded to IMAX or even be a first-run theater but rather we should play on its strengths as a grand old movie palace – the only one of it’s kind in South Central Alaska. The revitalized theater could partner with organizations like the Anchorage International Film Festival to show independent films and the Anchorage Museum to host local film events and screening events of selected classic movies. Imagine going to see films like Sunset Boulevard on the “big screen” as part of a night out on the town.

The penthouse apartment which was added in 1959 could be renovated and rented for events or as a swanky Mad Men-inspired vacation rental through a platform like VRBO. It could even be rented long-term at a high price to the person who’d like to call the coolest apartment in the city “my place”.

Such an endeavor would require a lot of heart and a significant endowment from a philanthropist or organization to be realized. For restoration to be possible, the city would be required to use the power of eminent domain to buy it back and in a case such as this. It would be a symbolic move that shows Anchorage is a city of permanence and a departure from a short-term, apathetic approach to growth.

Given this is unlikely to occur, we’ve undoubtedly missed our chance to save Anchorage’s only historic theater. Will Fairbanks learn from our mistakes and do whatever is necessary to preserve the Lacey Street Theater?

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