Lovesong to the Fourth Avenue Theater

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Let's talk about theaters. I want to spend some time writing not about the history, or controversy, but about the building. I also want to discuss another theater, which we lost some years ago. Finally, I want to talk about downtown theaters in general.

I write of course about the Fourth Avenue Theater, or the Lathrop Building. This beautiful example of late Art-Deco design is the symbol of Downtown Anchorage for me. The blue sign projects from the street façade announcing its presence. The sign itself is irrefutably iconic, and is as much a marquee as a signpost for the avenue, the Main Street of Anchorage. In every Iditarod start, every Fur Rondy, every 1964 photo of 4th avenue, it lofts supreme and sublime.

Although the marquee has fallen into disrepair, it represents a different attention to the public realm than we have today. As Modernism deteriorated into a commercially driven mass-produced shell of itself, in the 1960s and ‘70s, buildings lost their entrances. Humans gather under shelter, and when we approach a building, we look for a protected (covered) entry. Built in a style that would be démodé Outside, but vogue in early Anchorage, the 4th offers that comfort still—just don’t look at the underside of the marquee. Another quintessentially Art-Deco move is the curved corners at the entry in attractive—and human scaled—stone. I could even speculate that the stone came from active quarries in Southeast, but I have no evidence for that. The curves draw the visitor towards the entrance.

Solid concrete makes up the building—they don’t build buildings like that anymore. Concrete is the most local of all materials and has less embodied energy than steel—it even absorbs carbon. It is weather-resistant, stiff, and eternal. The concrete in the 4th symbolizes the permanence of Anchorage. When the theater opened, a log and dirt trail snaked to Seward, Mountain View had no pavement, or running water, and dogsled was still a common mode of transportation. However, the Railroad Depot, the Old Federal Building, the Old City Hall, and the two theaters on 4th Avenue were monuments to endurance and longevity.

I am one of a few of my generation to have been inside the theater, but I was young and recall little. I remember the look and feel of the lobby—the workmanship of the railings and details. The low lobby gave way to a cozy yet elegant auditorium with a balcony. On the azure ceiling the eight stars of gold formed the Big Dipper, and spelled a single word for me—home. Huge murals adorned the walls with golden scenes of Alaska’s past, present, and future.

I hear word of relocating the murals; what this means I fear to theorize. Consider this, though. How do the Alaska Natives feel about our appropriation of their cultural artifacts in our museums? Such is the story of every colonized people; to remove a people’s relics from its ancestral holy places is hurtful, insensitive, and wrong. —I can’t help thinking of a trip I took to England some years ago, where in a museum I saw a very old spiral staircase, its former home long since reduced to rubble. Thank God we still have the stair!—what stuff.

I lament that the loss of the Empress saw less community uproar. I recall no memorials, no historic photos, no birthday parties. The Empress Theater was ‘Cap’ Lathrop’s first in Anchorage, and was the oldest concrete building in town. Before its demolition, it was the Anchor Pub. All that remains is the foundation and one of its walls, now over a hundred years old, and in its place is the Palace of Putrefaction itself, the (retired) Legislative Information Offices. Its listing on the National Register of Historic Places failed to save it from the wrecking ball of Capitalism. I believe adaptive reuse should always come before wholesale demolition, for all of our sakes.

So what do we do with the 4th? Theater? Library? Halfway house? Visitor center? Brothel? Pot shop? I hear it has a flat floor, so that helps. But don’t gut the place of all that it still has; don’t cast it in amber, either. I would like to see it as a community public space, not in the hands of a few wealthy individuals. I have heard the carpetbaggers, NIMBY-types, and even Sourdoughs decry this hullabaloo; some would see it leveled. I see demolition as a net loss, and I hope I can evoke some empathy for our cause. At least keep it for the architects in this town; let them learn that we do not build buildings like this anymore, and maybe we should. I love the 4th not just as an architect—well a “rogue architect”—but as an Alaskan.

The Mayor and Downtown Partnership want to us to live, work, and play. We need places to play, and thrive, downtown. Build the apartments and condos in the parking lots—give us this grand edifice, give us a lowbrow entertainment venue. Let us break the demolition trend plaguing Outside and show we are permanent, and our (all of our) histories will endure.

Next week, bridges. Keep the faith and good night, my loves.

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