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Once a vaudeville theater, the Palace Theater has decayed for past decade

Posted: April 8, 2013 - 12:10am
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Palace Theater c. 1931. (Photo by Winter and Pond | THE ALASKA STATE LIBRARY HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS)
Palace Theater c. 1931. (Photo by Winter and Pond | THE ALASKA STATE LIBRARY HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS)

Squished in between a holistic store and a zip-line business on North Franklin is an old concrete building that has been vacant for the past 12 years. With a decaying color-blocked facade and boarded-up windows and doors, most people pass by the Palace Theater without a second glance. The one exception to its newfound invisibility were the nighttime inebriates who made use of its recessed entryway — eventually, that was boarded-up too.

But circa 1916 when it was first built, music playing from the No. 28 Kimball Organ inside could be heard from down the street, and a big electric sign over Franklin glowed “Spickett’s Palace Theater.” Back then it was a vaudeville theater owned and operated by John Spickett, complete with high ceilings, a balcony and tiered seating that could seat 700 people.

“It’s just a fascinating little building,” James Simard, the head of the historical collections at the Alaska State Library, said.

In its current state of disrepair, however, the historic theater has come to epitomize the problem of underutilized buildings in the historic district in the downtown area, city officials say.

“It used to be a more lively streetscape,” City and Borough of Juneau Community Development Department Planning Manager Greg Chaney said in an interview, “and for community health, it’s very important to have buildings be utilized. You get eyes on the street, people going to businesses there, people walking up and down the street seeing an open and active business. It makes a town vital. The more buildings that are closed down like that, it can have a domino effect in making that part of town undesirable.”

Generally speaking, the city is left with few options when a property owner is unwilling or unable to restore a building, which can cost millions of dollars.

“We can engage in encouraging them, we can help facilitate community forums if people are interested, we’d certainly be willing to work with the landowner to find out what types of occupancies the building would be suitable for, we’d be very willing to engage with the owner, or somebody who was interested in leasing or buying, finding out what options are available,” Chaney said. “... But we can only make recommendations if they want us to do something.”

Palace Theater has been repurposed over the years, transforming into Capitol Theater movie house from the 1930s to the 1970s, which billed itself as “Alaska’s prettiest theater,” according to city records. The building then housed commercial businesses in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Baranof Book Shop and Big City Books. Simard recalls being a stage carpenter and creating the Shipwreck Bar inside the theater as a set for the John Sales’ film “Limbo” shot in Juneau in 1999.

Before it closed in 2001, the owners leased it out to local theater companies and schools, giving the Palace one last swan song. The property owners then shut it down saying it was too run-down to keep open, too costly to repair.

“We’re not talking thousands of dollars — we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it sound and safe. It became cost prohibitive,” Lloyd Johnson, the then-vice president of First National Bank of Anchorage, which owns the building, told the Empire at the time. The Cuddy family bought the building and the First National Bank of Juneau in the early 1960s.

A prior city employee attempted to put the owners in touch with national nonprofit organizations that specifically restore old theaters, but to no avail.

The bank declined to comment for this story, although they acknowledged the historic value in the theater.

“The theater building on Franklin Street is a wonderful building with a long history in Juneau,” Luke Fanning, the vice president of First National Bank Alaska said in an email, adding, “The bank is focused on opportunities to provide and expand banking services to Alaskans in the communities we serve. We have no plans to take further advantage of the historic building in Juneau for that purpose at this time.”

The building is actually an odd L-shape that runs through the city block between Front and Franklin Streets. The theater faces Franklin, and the bank still operates on the Front Street side. The bank side is still in good, or “average”, condition, according to the city, which inspected the building in May 2011, according to reports.

As for the theater portion of the building: “in extremely poor condition unused and unsafe,” the report reads. “2nd (sic) floor unused theater auditorium area and 3rd (sic) floor unused apartment area.”

The city’s assessor office at that time estimated the building was worth approximately $1.7 million.

The city still has hopes to see the vacant portion of the building used again, even if it’s not restored for its original purpose as a theater, although that would be ideal, Chaney said. If that ever happens, it would breathe new life and vitality into the neighborhood, he said.

But in the meantime, the building’s rich history makes it that much more difficult to see it go unused.

“It’s actually a little gem,” Chaney said. “Perhaps a little faded and tarnished at this point, but it’s a gem waiting to be polished, I think.”

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