Historic theater could be torn down

Anchorage landmark may be, well, history

Posted: Sunday, December 18, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Fears are being raised that the historic 4th Avenue Theatre could be demolished or gutted now that the building has a prospective new owner.

The pending sale has raised a question: Isn't the 58-year-old Art Deco building already protected? The answer is that it once was, but no longer.

When the theater opened in 1947, it attracted the attention of critics who said its design and appointments were unparalleled on the West Coast. After four decades and several owners, it began a slow decline.

In 1985, Oregon-based Thomas E. Moyer Theaters bought the building, and then-Mayor Tony Knowles brokered a deal to preserve its historical character. The city spent $600,000 to buy a "conservation easement," maintaining the theater's faade and interior for posterity. Knowles also negotiated a right-of-first-refusal in any sale through the end of this year: For $875,000, the city could own the theater free and clear.

After several years, the Oregon business defaulted on its bank loan. According to Gina Holloman at Anchorage Historic Properties Inc., the administration of Mayor Tom Fink passed up an opportunity to take over mortgage payments and resell the building while maintaining preservation rights. When the bank foreclosed, the city lost both the easement and its 20-year right-to-purchase option.

Robert Gottstein bought the building in a foreclosure sale in 1991 and offered to put the easement back in force if the city would pay him $300,000. The Fink administration rejected the deal.

"Without my purchase of the 4th Avenue Theatre, it's likely the building would have been torn down," Gottstein said. "Certainly, after all the time and money I've put into the building, I'd like to see it preserved, but that's no longer my responsibility. If the building's going to be preserved, the community will have to step up to the plate."

The Begich administration is working to help the community do that, said Robin Ward, director of the municipality's Heritage Land Bank.

The Begich administration will request $4.1 million from the Legislature to cover preservation and development of the theater, including its liquor license and equipment, she said.

"We're also hoping we can engage the whole state with a capital campaign," Ward said. "That way, anybody who wants to contribute to saving the theater would have an account at a statewide bank where they could send a check."

With no historical preservation easement in force, however, no buyer of the theater would be obliged to consult the city or the public about its plans. Ward emphasized that preservation efforts are meaningless until theater ownership is clarified.

"There's no prohibition against demolition," Ward said. "We're hoping the general public and the city will be able to persuade any new purchaser to participate with us in efforts to preserve the building.

In the last week, the theater's preservation has grown more urgent. Peach Investments, a San Francisco-based development concern owned by Joe and Maria Fang, made an offer on the theater in support of its plan to build a 24-story mixed-use tower directly behind it. Rumors circulated that Peach planned to gut the theater, perhaps putting a parking structure or health club in its place.

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