Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn signs resolution designating a Downtown Historic Theatre District on December 6, 2011.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 7/19/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10145

On December 6, 2011, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn (b. 1959) signs a resolution designating a Downtown Historic Theatre District to support the preservation, promotion, and maintenance of Seattle's historic downtown theaters. Five venues are included in the new district: Town Hall, the 5th Avenue Theatre, A Contemporary Theatre ACT/Eagles Auditorium, the Paramount Theatre, and the Moore Theatre.

A Community Service          

McGinn signed the resolution in a public ceremony at the 5th Avenue Theatre. Designed by Robert C. Reamer (1873-1938), the stunning theater boasts a lavish Chinese-themed interior constructed under the supervision of San Francisco artist Gustav Liljestrom (1880-1958). The Seattle City Council had unanimously approved the resolution the day before. Councilmember Nick Licata (b. 1947) was present at the signing ceremony, as was Ken Kirkpatrick, president of U.S. Bank in Washington -- originally People's Bank and a long-term supporter of local arts -- and chairman of ArtsFund, an organization that provides arts groups with guidance on business aspects of arts management.

Representatives of the five named theaters began meeting in late 2010 to discuss ways to support each other and encourage cultural tourism. From these meetings came the idea of creating a historic downtown theater district, with the hope that banding together and branding their operations would broaden their clout and send a message to potential funders that their organizations were important to Seattle both economically and culturally. Mayor McGinn agreed, but stressed that the city was not then in a position to provide funding. On November 30, 2011, the group testified to the Seattle City Council's Housing, Human Services, Health, and Culture committee in support of Resolution 31341 designating a downtown historic theater district for the City of Seattle.

Seattle Theatre Group executive director Josh LaBelle (b. 1965) told the committee, "We decided to form this district for the really simple purpose to sustain and deepen our service to the community. ... We also believe that we have a responsibility to further  raise awareness of the unique and strong value that the collective historic theaters have in downtown as well as a responsibility to try and grow our community impact and our economic impact" ("Seattle City Council..."). Seattle Theatre Group owns and operates the Paramount, Moore, and Neptune Theatres in Seattle.

An Economic Engine

In addition to serving as important cultural landmarks, treasured gathering places, and venues for artistic expression, the designated theaters are an important factor in Seattle's economy. In 2010, for example, the five venues presented more than 1,000 performances, providing more than 2,000 local jobs and generating more than $15 million in income. About 75 percent of the total audience at the five theaters comes from outside Seattle, making them a valuable tourist attraction.

"We're highlighting one of the things that makes Seattle special," McGinn told the crowd gathered for the signing. "The creation of this district will recognize, protect, and build upon the collective contribution of these theaters to our economy and our cultural destiny" ("Downtown Historic Theater District"). McGinn gave credit to those who take leadership roles in the five designated theaters, explaining that it was their effort and appeal to council that launched the historic theater district plan.

In order to be eligible for inclusion in the historic district, venues must have been built before 1930, be located in downtown Seattle, produce or present live performances, and operate as not-for-profit organizations. The Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs is charged with overseeing the district implementation plan.

Fallen Fellows

Had such a historic theater district existed and enjoyed both mayoral and city council support during the late twentieth century, it might have been the salvation of other grand venues that certainly could have met the inclusion criteria, but were destroyed. These included the Coliseum, opened in 1926 and advertised as the world's largest and finest photoplay palace, which was converted into a Banana Republic retail store in 1994; and the Music Hall, opened in 1929, which was demolished in 1992 after years of legal challenges -- it had been granted landmark status, which was later revoked at the owner's request, and then designated again prior to demolition.

Other theatrical palaces had fallen earlier: the Music Box Theatre, opened at 1414 Fifth Avenue in 1928, was demolished in 1987. The grand, gigantic Orpheum, constructed in 1927 as a vaudeville and motion picture house and filling an entire block bordered by Fifth Avenue and Stewart Street, fell in 1967 and is now (2012) the site of the Westin Hotel.

Mayor McGinn's remarks included a nod to these fallen fellow theaters: "Establishing a Downtown Historic Theatre District will avoid past disasters, such as the 1929 baroque-style Music Hall's demolition 19 years ago" ("Downtown Historic Theater District").

An Earlier Effort

After the Music Hall was demolished, civic advocacy group Allied Arts campaigned for stronger historic preservation laws to protect the remaining downtown historic theaters. (Allied Arts had led the fierce, but unsuccessful, charge to save the Music Hall.) The group successfully lobbied for the implementation of transferable development rights, which encourage moving growth or redevelopment away from areas or properties where a community would like to see less development or change and to areas where communities would like more development. Transferable development rights can be used to protect historical and cultural properties, among other sensitive places.

In December 1992, Seattle Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943) agreed to the formation of the Theater Advisory Group. The group's mission was to provide advice to the city-staff task force that was grappling with how to protect Seattle's remaining historic theaters. At the time, those were the Paramount, the Moore, the 5th Avenue, the former Eagles Auditorium (which became home to ACT Theatre in 1996), and the Coliseum. The structure that in 1999 became known as Town Hall was in 1992 still serving as the sanctuary for the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist. Walt Crowley (1947-2007), Allied Arts vice-president (and later co-founder of HistoryLink.org), organized the new group.

During the battle to save the Music Hall, the property owners (the Clise family -- descendents of Anna Herr (1866-1936) and James (1855-1939) Clise, who had purchased the theater in 1936) claimed that the building itself had no economic use. The building had suffered a string of unsuccessful managers and poor programming, and was by no means a healthy business at the time. The economic state of most of the other threatened historic theaters in 1992 was similarly worrisome: the Coliseum had stopped showing movies in 1990 and sat vacant. The Eagles Auditorium was extremely run-down and functioning as a rental facility. The owners of the Paramount had filed for bankruptcy in 1987. The Moore -- Seattle's oldest existing entertainment venue -- was in poor condition, serving as an event-by-event rental facility.

Only the 5th Avenue, which survived the 1980s only by the grace of board member cash infusions -- theatrical life support -- appeared to be climbing onto solid ground. The formation, in 1989, of the 5th Avenue Theatre Association, a concerted private sector fundraising effort to save the theater, and a programming shift away from serving strictly as a road show presenter and toward a blend of presenting touring shows and producing programming -- and careful management -- was beginning to yield subscribers and healthy action at the box office.

A Vibrant Theatrical Community

By 2011, despite the fact that Seattle, along with the rest of the country, was struggling with economic recession, Seattle's historic theaters were well-managed, well-programmed, well-attended, and well-supported both morally and financially by individuals, corporations, and the city. All had undergone preservation and restoration to varying degrees, thanks to the extensive efforts of public and private donors. All were thus able to contribute to Seattle's economic well-being, along with serving as important landmarks in the city's built environment.

Councilmember Nick Licata articulated the Downtown Historic Theatre District's implementation plan at the December 5, 2011, full city council meeting during which Resolution 31341 was unanimously approved:

"To identify long-range strategies for the ongoing economic benefit, preservation, and operation of these institutions.

"To identify organizational structures specific to the dual status that they have, which is that they're being run by nonprofits but they also have a civic and cultural interaction and assets.

"To look at marketing opportunities so that we can increase both the economic activities downtown as well as the attendance at these institutions" ("Full Council").

The Seattle Times reporter Emily Heffter stated, "Seattle's district (will be) unique not only because its theaters are historic, but because they are open and successful" ("Council to vote").


Sources: "Downtown Historic Theater District," Downtown Seattle News website accessed July 9, 2012 (http://www.downtownseattlenews.com/?s=Downtown+Historic+Theater+District); "Mayor's Press Event: Downtown Historic Theatre District, 12/6/2011," "Seattle City Council Housing, Human Services, Health and Culture committee 11/30/2011," and "Full Council 12/5/2011," videos available on SeattleChannel website accessed July 15, 2012 (www.SeattleChannel.org); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Fox (Music Hall) Theatre (Seattle)," "Coliseum opens in Seattle on January 8, 1916," and "Demolition of Seattle's Orpheum Theatre begins on August 6, 1967" (all by Eric Flom), and "Allied Arts of Seattle" (by Walt Crowley), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 13, 2012); Jason Hanly-Forde, George Homsy, Katherine Lieberknecht, and Remington Stone, "Transfer of Development Rights Programs: Using the Market for Compensation and Preservation," Cornell University website accessed July 13, 2012 (http://government.cce.cornell.edu/doc/html/transfer%20of%20development%20rights%20programs.htm); Dick Lilly, "Citizens Group Formed To Preserve Theaters," The Seattle Times, December 2, 1991, p. B-3; Marsha King, "Stages of Decline: Seattle's Grand Old Theaters Battle for Preservation Amid Economic Uncertainty," Ibid., March 17, 1989, p. C-1; Emily Heffter, "Council to Vote on Forming Historic Theater District...," Ibid., December 5, 2011, p. B-1.

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