Anchorage has been wracked for the past week by a paroxysm of collective grief over the pending loss — finally, it appears, for good — of the historic 4th Avenue Theatre. Despite essentially no public access to the building’s interior for the past decade and a half, the art deco landmark and its iconic edifice loomed large in our community consciousness. To many, the building seems to have been a symbol of a time when Anchorage was more hopeful, more wholesome and more united in a common purpose. Through those eyes, each letter removed from the theater’s facade looks like a step away from the qualities we value and toward a divided, unimaginative, complicated present.
Divorced from nostalgia, the reality isn’t that simple or unambiguous. If we want to understand why the saga of the 4th Avenue Theatre came to be where it is, and why that outcome is far from a worst-case scenario, we’d be well served to take off our rose-colored glasses.
The 4th Avenue Theatre, opened in 1947 by Alaska entrepreneur Austin E. “Cap” Lathrop, was the largest and most visually distinctive of the art deco theaters in the territory, alongside Fairbanks’ smaller Lacey Street theater and a pair of theaters each named the “Empress” in Anchorage and Fairbanks. As others have eloquently noted, the 1,000-seat theater, along with its modern styling and intricate inside artwork, was an expression of optimism — in Alaska’s potential, its future growth and where it was heading. Those expressions of hope were deeply felt by the community, and still are.
Given all of that, why is the 4th Avenue Theatre headed for a renovation that will drastically change the look and feel of the building and the block it sits on? The answer, simply, is that although there are all kinds of different visions for what should happen to the theater, there wasn’t sufficient community will nor funding to fix it up and maintain it in perpetuity — and there hasn’t been for decades.
It’s not easy to confront the fact that although so many people have fond memories of the theater and what it stands for, no one who wants it to remain a theater has been willing or able to rally an effort to preserve it. It’s not as though such a campaign was beyond the means of a community-based effort — when Peach Investments purchased the theater at a foreclosure auction in 2009, the group paid $791,000 for the building and about $850,000 in back taxes. The purchase of the theater had actually come before voters in 2006 as a bond measure that would have allocated $2 million to that purpose; Anchorage residents rejected it by a 16% margin. Like it or not, that was when we made our decision about whether we valued the theater enough to keep it as-is.
The reality is, that was a rational decision by voters. With the Performing Arts Center and the Egan Center a block away, downtown Anchorage has no shortage of performance and event space. Private operators had been unable to keep the theater in the black, hence the massive back-tax bill. Moreover, decades of sparse maintenance meant keeping the then-60-year-old building in usable shape going forward would have required a substantial ongoing commitment of resources — one that residents ultimately said no to. Just to keep the building in its present, unrestored state, Peach says it’s spent $2 million since acquiring the property.
It’s not as though Alaskans tend to completely disregard our history or the spaces the public values. Anchorage’s crown jewel, the public greenbelts and trail system, have been preserved and thoughtfully developed over decades with broad, continual public support and funding. In Fairbanks, the preservation of the former Creamer’s Dairy and its reinvention as a migratory waterfowl refuge is a similar success story, with members of the public banding together to fund the purchase and maintenance of the site. But efforts like that take major, ongoing infusions of public effort and funding, and that means a broad swath of the community needs to support and be able to benefit from the vision for the space. There was never a plan for the 4th Avenue Theatre that cleared that bar.
We should remember, too, that there is great value in new development downtown. Other Peach-owned projects have been steps forward for Anchorage, such as the 188 Northern Lights office tower and the ongoing, multimillion-dollar renovation of the downtown Key Bank building. There are few other private entities making such significant investments into our community and its infrastructure. Although Peach’s project bears a different visual aesthetic than the 4th Avenue Theatre, it represents the same optimism for Anchorage’s future.
Although it’s tempting to write off Peach Investments’ plans for the block as garish or insufficiently deferential to the theater’s history, it’s important to remember that the vision for the theater in the first place was about looking forward. Peach’s operators have made pledges to preserve the building’s facade and artwork in some form; given the circumstances, that’s more than they’re obligated to do, and more than voters opted to do themselves. At present, the block is an unused, derelict structure with no real hope of returning to its former state. Whatever you think of its design, Peach’s plans for the block represent a sorely needed investment in the rehabilitation of downtown. With the loss of mainstay retailers like Nordstrom, that’s more important than ever. If he were here to redesign the block today, Cap Lathrop might not have chosen the shape of the new building, but he would recognize the inclination to make bets on Alaska’s future. Wonderful memories of the 4th Avenue Theatre should be treasured — but they shouldn’t preclude our ability to make new ones.