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March 15, 2001

The Fate of an Architectural Treasure

by Jim Van Buskirk

On Mission Street, between 21st and 22nd Streets, a variety of concerned preservationists have been battling City College's plans for a satellite campus. Some say the soul of San Francisco is at stake, its history being bulldozed on behalf of its future. Others say you can't stand in the way of progress.

The Mission, San Francisco's oldest neighborhood, largely spared by the 1906 earthquake and fire, has long been a vital business district, once rivaling that of Market Stree
t. Over the years, the Mission District's former glory may have faded, but it has not disappeared. You see reminders as you traverse its central thoroughfare. Nearly unnoticed, decaying marquees hang from the sides of forlorn buildings, like huge ghosts. They inadequately indicate the former grandeur of the vast interior auditoriums they once advertised: Tower, El Capital, Grand, Cine Latino, New Mission. They are all that remain of the almost two dozen neighborhood movie houses that existed in the first three decades of the 20th century.

The New Mission Theater was built in 1916 at 2550 Mission Street on the site of the Premium Theater, now considered San Francisco's first theater built exclusively for motion pictures. The Premium became the Idle Hour, which architects James and Merritt Reid, famous for their Fairmont Hotel, later used as the lobby the huge new theater they designed. Renamed the New Mission by owners Lewis Greenfield and Leon I. Kahn, the theater boasted elaborate features including a 12-piece orchestra, a pipe organ, smoking rooms, several patron and employee lounges, and "free childcare in the adjoining garden playground." Opening night featured Mary Pickford's silent film, Poor Little Peppina.

The New Mission has been described as "the most beautiful suburban house in America" and as "one of the finest film houses in the West." Now that the Reid Brothers' New Fillmore has been demolished and their Coliseum heavily altered, the New Mission remains as the best-preserved of their work. The Beaux-Arts building blends the team's trademark classicism with more playful elements, such as a delicate lattice-work dome in the auditorium. In the early 30's, Timothy Pflueger, famous as the architect of the Paramount, Alhambra and Castro Theaters, was hired to renovate the lobby and facade in more modern style. Pflueger replaced the Reids' facade with a combination of Art Deco elements, adding a sculpted sheet metal parapet and a 70-foot-high swept-blade sign, which was originally illuminated by an elaborate network of neon tubes. Coincidentally, Pflueger also designed much of City College's main campus. A few more "modernizations" of the theater occurred in 1961, and the New Mission Theater continued to operate until May 1993, when it finally succumbed to the mounting pressures of home VCRs and suburban multiplex chains.

College clashes

In Summer 1998, City College of San Francisco purchased the property and the neighboring Giant Value variety store next door, with plans to build a $43 million campus to serve 9,000 students. City College's Mission District programs are now operating out of a variety of spaces, leased and shared, around the neighborhood. City College officials insist the theater must be demolished in order to create the much-needed new campus of classrooms and laboratories, offices, childcare center, library and resource center, bookstore, cafe and community meeting space.

Upon learning of the plans to raze the theater, preservationists led by Will Shank and U.B. Morgan formed a grassroots group calling itself "Save the New Mission Theater." This informal coalition of individual residents, neighborhood organizations, several preservation groups representing many ethnic persuasions, and support from a number of City College faculty, students and alumni, charged that "City College has failed to seek alternatives to destroying part of our cultural heritage." The coalition strongly urged the architects to look at ways to build the facility and still preserve the theater. "This is not a question of programming versus preservation," the impassioned group's literature insists. "It is a matter of City College thinking creatively to save the theater and use it as a resource for the community."

The controversy echoes the one in 1997 when City College presented a plan to tear down the historic Columbo Building in North Beach as well as an adjacent building that housed low-income Asian families, in order to build a new Chinatown campus on the site. Only after District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin brought suit did City College agree to full incorporate the Colombo Building into its design, and Peskin dropped his suit.

Under relentless pressure from the Save the New Mission group, City College Chancellor Phillip Day Jr. has agreed to hire Jay Turnbull, whom he considers "one of the most prestigious and highest-regarded preservation architects in San Francisco." Turnbull will "outline a number of preservation alternatives or solutions, and the costs associated with them," Day said. These, he reiterated, would be in addition to the already agreed-upon architectural elements, mostly related to the theater's facade.

Meanwhile, Save the New Mission has hired Alice Carey, another well-regarded preservation architect, to develop a separate set of recommendations. In the meantime, the plan currently calls for demolition of the theater.

Palace dreams

Today, you might easily walk past the cluttered Evermax furniture store without noticing its former identity as a movie palace. As you enter, you pass the obscured box office. In one of the foyer's full-length frames, a card still invites, "Let's go... to the movies." You squeeze through a wide variety of sofas, end tables, and lighting fixtures, wandering deeper into the seemingly endless space. Slowly it dawns on you: you're in the huge lobby of the former movie palace. Looking up, you notice staircases that lead to wrought iron-railed mezzanines, lounges, and finally the balcony. Incredulous, you keep going, and finally you peer into the darkness to see a vast room piled high with mattresses. As your eyes adjust, you see that you are in the auditorium of a huge 2,800-seat theater. It may be dirty and in sorry disrepair, but it is remarkably intact. Almost all of the changes made since Pflueger's renovations have been deemed reversible.

An ongoing series of lengthy hearing, postponements and delays by a variety of agencies has frustrated those involved, and still the future remains unforeseeable. Even the building's landmark status remains in limbo. A public hearing, originally scheduled by the Committee of Housing, Transportation and Land Use for March 22, is no rescheduled for April or May. In whatever form, the final project will require both major state and city funding, the latter to be approved by SF voters.

Over the years, San Francisco has lost the fabulous Fox Theater, Playland at the Beach, and many more examples of its rich architectural heritage. Recently members of the GLBT communities mobilized to preserve the Fallon Building at 1800 Market Street when that Victorian was slated to be demolished to make way for the GLBT Community Center. After a lengthy struggle, a compromise was finally reached which retains the integrity of the Fallon Building. In June, the Friends of 1800 Market Street will be sponsoring Looking Back and Forward: Significant Places of the GLBT Community, a two-day symposium, to discuss the role of the community in preservation and design.

Although the preservation group is hopeful, it remains unclear whether or not there's a way to achieve the goals of City College's new facility and still save the New Mission Theater. Referring to the forthcoming reports from Carey and Turnbull, Day says, "Then, if we agree to disagree, we'll know why."

copyright, 2001

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