Developers promise to preserve portions of the 1923 Egyptian Revival theatre on Geary Boulevard, which has been closed since 2004.
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The Egyptian design that has defined San Francisco‘s Alexandria Theater for decades was inspired by the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun‘s tomb. While its survival depends on something slightly less lofty – the construction of modern housing units and retail space – preservationists aren’t complaining.
The city’s Historic Preservation Commission recently reviewed a development proposal for the Alexandria, which has been dark since 2004 after showing films for 81 years on Geary Boulevard in the Richmond District. Now, having undergone an environmental and historic analysis, it appears that the project is on its way to obtaining city approval.
The plans encompass the old movie house and an adjoining parking lot and feature a restaurant, retail space and 46 housing units.
More important to history and theater buffs, developers have pledged to maintain a small theater on the property. They also promised to preserve the structure’s exterior ornamental elements, such as the papyrus leaf columns, and restore its interior charms – the lobby’s grand staircase, sunburst chandelier and murals, to name a few.
The property’s redevelopment had been stalled while builders and the city worked out details. But in a town where several historic theaters continue to decay because preservationists and developers cannot reach consensus, the Alexandria project appears to enjoy broad support.
“A challenge with all of all these theaters is that the developers want to develop the space next door, but they aren’t sure what to do with the theater,” said Alfonso Felder, who is on the board of directors of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation. “We’re happy that the space will continue to offer entertainment for the neighborhood – film, live theater, cabaret, whatever it may be – as long as it continues to be an assembly place for the community.”
Richmond District Supervisor Eric Mar said his constituents are frustrated that the Alexandria’s corner at Geary and 18th Avenue has been inactive and blighted for so long. Now though, he’s seeing the project as a “tremendous morale booster for shops and restaurants.”
The look of the Alexandria was conceived by famed San Francisco architects James and Merritt Reid, who also designed the Fairmont Hotel, the Cliff House, Mission High School, the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland and the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego.
In addition to its 70-foot tower and curved-corner facade, the 2,000-seat showplace was unique for its time, in that it featured a sloping floor, stadium-style seating and no balcony.
Newspapers in 1923 were prone to more hyperbole than today’s print media. As such, the Richmond Banner provided this description for the Alexandria’s opening in November that year: “As the ancient Pharaohs built their temples to their gods, so has the Alexandria been dedicated to the god of amusement, particularly the god of the motion picture, before which millions bow down each night throughout the world.”
In 1942, the Alexandria’s owners decided it needed an upgrade, and they added a streamlined Art Deco marquee and interior adornments, such as metal leaf plaques along the grand staircase, murals and a blade sign showcasing the theater’s name.
The Alexandria remained a single-screen theater until United Artists Theater Co. bought it in 1976 and created two viewing rooms by closing off the theater’s upper seats with partition walls.
Sold, then closed
Regal Entertainment acquired the bankrupt United Artists in 1998 and operated the Alexandria. It closed on Feb. 16, 2004, one week after being sold to a group of investors, Alexandria Enterprises LLC, which owns it today.
Jonathan Pearlman, the San Francisco architect who drafted plans for the new theater building, said the 1976 walls would be removed and a second story created, using a platform that would not attach to existing walls. That way, the theater’s murals and other decor would be preserved.
The ground floor is expected to include an expanded lobby and retail space, a box office and restrooms. A 250-seat single-screen theater is proposed for the second floor, along with a 200-seat restaurant and office space. The over-capacity Richmond District YMCA sits across the street and may rent space in the renovated building.
“In 1976, they just threw some walls up,” Pearlman said. “But the good news is that they just threw some walls up and didn’t do any damage to the theater.”
On the adjoining parking lot to the north, the developers have proposed a four-story mixed-use building, with housing units, a restaurant and retail space.
The next step for developers is to try to obtain a conditional use permit from the city. Because the project involves a mixed-used development on property that is more than a half-acre, the builders must convince the Planning Commission that their project is necessary and desirable for the area, and explain why it will not impose negative impacts.
Numerous theater projects across the city stalled in recent years because builders failed to convince preservationists that valuable historic resources would not be lost in construction.
The owner of the 1926-built Harding Theater on Divisadero Street, for instance, gave up on a housing and renovation plan in late 2008, after preservationists convinced the Planning Commission that the project needed a detailed historic and environmental review – despite the fact that city planners determined that it did not.
Ronald Yu, the spokesman for Alexandria Enterprises, said there seemed to be consensus on the Alexandria project and that construction could start by the end of the year.
“The project will definitely be an asset to the community,” Yu said. “It will bring in more housing, more stores and a new screen.”