A private developer this week began taking steps to demolish the 4th Avenue Theatre, a beloved historical landmark in downtown Anchorage, as part of a larger $200 million redevelopment project.
A few disappointed onlookers watched Thursday as a worker in a cherry-picker began dismantling the letters from the iconic “4th Avenue” sign outside the World War II-era theater, carefully cutting away the “u” at the bottom of the sign.
“It’s sad,” said Arlene Raney, who lives nearby and had come to watch.
Raney said she was a teenager in the 1950s when she dressed up for her first visit to the Art Deco-style theater. It was luxurious inside, with large murals gracing the walls.
“It was a big deal to go the movies back then,” she said. “I’m getting bumps on my arms. Memories.”
The owners of the property, Derrick and Terence Chang of Peach Holdings, have deemed the 4th Avenue Theatre too costly to restore, citing code compliance and safety issues.
A design rendering of the redevelopment plan released in May shows a facade and “4th Avenue” sign resembling today’s theater, surrounded by a new, large geometrically complex building filling the block, with an exterior featuring a variety of angles and designs.
The new development “will serve as a catalyst to creating a better, safer place for our families and visitors,” the Changs said in a statement to reporters and an opinion piece in the Daily News this week.
Peach Holdings owns nearly all of the buildings along Fourth and Fifth avenues between G Street and F Street, including the theater and the former Key Bank Plaza, currently undergoing a $41 million renovation. The building’s removal is part of a project on the block that envisions mixed-use development, with hotel, office, retail, housing, parking and entertainment space.
The brothers said they had sought ways to preserve the theater after Peach Holdings acquired it in 2009 at a foreclosure sale. But it had been neglected for decades, and faced insurmountable code compliance issues and structural and seismic concerns, they said. The Changs said despite years of effort, they found no economic option to restore it to modern standards, including keeping it as a single-screen theater or performance venue.
According to Peach Holdings, it has spent more than $2 million keeping up the property, in addition to taxes and utilities. Part of that investment could be recovered by a tax exemption covering deteriorated properties granted for the Fourth Avenue parcels by the city Assembly in 2015.
Some of the first steps at the theater involve environmental remediation efforts, they said.
“Recently, environmental contractors were hired to mitigate various levels of hazardous material such as asbestos, mastics and lead,” they said.
They have been working with professionals to protect the building’s historical legacy, they said. Elements of the building’s facade will be re-created and incorporated into the new development, including the sign. They plan to reuse the characters on the sign, and are assessing the sign itself, which is not easy to remove, for possible reuse.
An artist and their team have already removed the Alaska history murals that flanked the stage, the curved Denali relief in the lobby and panels depicting wildlife by the staircase, they said. The items have been stored and can be reinstalled in a later development, they said.
High-definition laser scans inside and outside the building, and photo documentation, have also been completed, with the goal of listing the building in the Historic American Buildings Survey maintained by the Library of Congress, the Changs said.
For many Alaskans, the activity this week marks a lamentable end to decades of unsuccessful efforts to save and renovate the building, listed in the National Register of Historic Places and once a symbol of a young city’s promise.
Its construction began in 1941, but the war delayed construction and it was completed in 1947.
Judith Bittner, the state historic preservation officer, said Wednesday that she’s resigned to the fact that the theater will soon be gone. Efforts to save it began in the 1990s, but they failed. Local provisions and incentives favor demolition rather than preservation, she said.
Bittner signed a letter Tuesday to Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson on behalf of the Alaska Historical Commission, of which Bittner is a member. It outlined steps needed to preserve the building, and said demolition would hurt the character of downtown’s historic area.
“The planned demolition will do what the great Alaska earthquake could not — destroy the 4th Avenue Theater and the 75 years of Anchorage history it represents,” Bittner wrote.
The letter was a final chance to restate the views and recommendations the commission has made for several years, Bittner said. A similar letter was sent to Gov. Mike Dunleavy in July, she said. (Jeff Turner, a spokesman in the governor’s office, said on Thursday the letter had not been received.)
“It’s a sad history of community efforts that didn’t quite come to fruition, and in the end we lose it,” she said.
Bronson’s office, in a statement emailed for this article, said the building is in “severe disrepair,” and that the Changs’ project will result in hundreds of new jobs and downtown housing and bring a new attraction to Anchorage.
“Past community efforts to raise funds to save the building, though valiant, were unsuccessful,” the statement said. “As such, the mayor supports plans to bring new development and life to 4th Avenue with respect to the historical nature of the theater.”
Scott Selman, co-owner of downtown’s Club Paris restaurant, posted an elegy to Facebook on Wednesday over the pending destruction of the “crown jewel of Anchorage’s historical architecture.” It generated more than 500 comments, many of them regretful, though some said the building was in bad shape.
Selman was a young boy in the early 1960s when his father, a World War II veteran, took him to see “The Guns of Navarone” there, he said in an interview.
“When you walked inside there, you were in a different world than the entire rest of Anchorage,” he said. “It was a place unto itself, it was elegant and it gave validity to the city coming of age.”
It should have been renovated into an arthouse, movie theater or restaurant, serving as an anchor building to draw visitors to downtown, he said.
“We had one thing, just one freaking thing, that we could be proud of, one monument to preserve,” he wrote on Facebook.
And it couldn’t be done.
“This literally breaks my heart,” he said in the post.