Is new Seattle theater district just a label?

Mayor McGinn officially cut the ribbon last week on Seattle's Downtown Historic Theater District. Is it just another tourism-driving label or will the district actually benefit from the sum of its parts?

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Town Hall Seattle, a civic and performance institution on First Hill

Mayor McGinn officially cut the ribbon last week on Seattle's Downtown Historic Theater District. Is it just another tourism-driving label or will the district actually benefit from the sum of its parts?

Shortly after I first moved to Seattle in 1976 I saw Roman Polanski’s film The Tenant, which was showing in the 5th Avenue Theatre. This was an era  when its use for live performances had all but disappeared. So musty and forlorn was the place that the setting perfectly matched the depressing mood of the movie. Indeed, a few years later, the theatre was seriously considered for demolition.

But instead, businesses and individuals rallied to save it and return it to its original use.

Seattle's commitment to the preservation of its historic performance spaces continued last week, when Mayor McGinn signed a resolution creating the Downtown Historic Theater District. The district includes five buildings used as venues for live theatre, music, lectures, and other events: the 5th Avenue Theatre , the ACT – A Contemporary Theatre, The Paramount, The Moore, and Town Hall Seattle.

All of these serve to enliven and enrich the array of cultural choices within the central city. Widely recognized as having a vibrant culture for the performing arts, these historic Seattle theatres — along with Benaroya Hall, McCaw Hall, the Rep, and others — are widely supported by the community, corporations, and non-profit funding organizations. These venues are regional resources for our city, with a significant portion of their audiences coming from outside the county.

Though all of the structures designated for the new district were built in the first three decades of the Twentieth Century, not all started out as places for live performances. Town Hall was originally a church. The sanctuary and other spaces within the building offered relatively simple conversions to audiences facing a stage. In the years since it has been Town Hall, numerous events, lecture series, and musical performances have taken place in its dignified and formal interiors. I fondly recall sharing the stage with David Byrne as he recounted snippets from his book, Bicycle Diaries.

ACT involved a far more complicated retrofit of a building that for decades housed the Eagles fraternal organization. The structure was virtually gutted and pieces carefully restored and replaced. Five performance spaces are now found within the building, from the grand and dramatic Allen Theatre to the quirky, basement-level Cabaret, with its encircling mezzanine and ceiling decorated with cryptic symbols from the Eagles era. A new, small black-box theatre was recently carved out of another part of the building.

If the multiple venues weren’t complex enough, the building is a splendid example of mixed use; the upper floors contain below-market rate housing units. So successful has ACT been at attracting audiences and supporters that it is not only in the black, but it has recently paid off its mortgage.

I’ve enjoyed many types of performance at the Moore, from comedy to music. When it was the Moore Egyptian, the theatre helped launch the Seattle International Film Festival, which is now so successful that it has its own clutch of permanent venues on Lower Queen Anne. Although I’ve been to many events in the club-like basement of the Moore, I’ve never seen the legendary natatorium, a room rumored to hold a swimming pool, that used to be housed deeper in the bowels of the building and is supposedly still there — an entombed piece of Seattle’s past.

The Paramount, long an entertainment venue, was given a major boost in the 1990’s with a thorough renovation that brought back its fine interior finishes and fixtures. An enlarged addition to the back of house made it ideal for big traveling shows as well as local productions. A new hydraulic floor allows the seating to be lowered for events that need a flat floor. Few theatres match the verve of the grand staircase ascending to the second level with its elegant, arched openings.  With its dramatic marquee, The Paramount acts as an anchor for a part of Pine Street that has more recently been accumulating hotels and fine restaurants.

The Downtown Theater District is similar to initiatives in other cities. Boston has a district that contains more than ten theatres. Downtown Cleveland has been creating a lively arts district along Euclid Avenue. Minneapolis and Pittsburgh have also created such districts, although with fewer theatrical venues than Seattle. Its probably no coincidence that all of these places share a common trait – months of inclement weather in which people seek out warm, interior spaces to enjoy arts and entertainment while outdoor activities are limited. They are also cities that nurture the arts through academic institutions and broad public support. Here in Seattle, a number of colleges and universities have their own small theatres that allow budding actors, directors, costumers, and set designers to hone their craft.

Seattle's new theater district brings with it the ability to market and promote shows collectively, rather than every venue fending for itself. Moreover, according to Carlo Scandiuzzi, the Executive Director of ACT, “The district presents a unified effort that funding organizations find appealing. The sharing of interests and objectives, rather than competing for the same sources, is seen as a definitive strength.” It is commendable that the leaderships of the 5th Avenue,  ACT, Town Hall, and The Seattle Theatre Group came together to promote this idea, which serves them all better than independent efforts.

This collective identity can lead to marketing tie-ins, coordinated promotions, possibly reciprocal membership benefits, and a united image with residents as well as visitors to the region. These splendid and elegant theatres are both physical landmarks and cultural ones. They represent the high value we place on both supporting the creative arts and preserving our architectural heritage.

Today, we have a number of unique and engaging theatres that are successful and well-supported by a solid community base. The new Theater District should help assure their continued success into the future.  


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).