Fans of domed movie theaters won a rare victory at the start of April when the State Historical Resources Commission agreed that the former Century 21 theater in San Jose is worthy of being listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The vote sends the matter to the Keeper of the National Register, who makes the final decision. The commission deemed the theater “eligible” for listing, which is how it will likely remain. Before a privately owned property can actually be placed on the National Register, its owner must agree.
The owner of the Century 21, however, has opposed the listing and wants to tear the dome down.
Being named to the Register, or deemed “eligible,” does not guarantee preservation of a building, though it can help establish roadblocks to destruction if people argue for a building’s preservation because of its architectural or historical significance.
“Listing privately owned property does not change the owner’s discretionary use,” state historian Amy Crain, who helps staff the commission, explained in an e-mail. “Potential restrictions that may include design review, local zoning, and land use planning regulations would be determined by the local government planning agency.”
The commission’s vote was unanimous except for one abstention. It came after several people, including representatives of the group that nominated the theater, Docomomo, and San Jose neighbors, argued that the domed theater, built in 1964, is one of the most important modernist landmarks in town.
Therese Poletti, author, journalist and preservationist, spoke on behalf of Docomomo, a preservation and educational group focused on modern architecture. She said architect Vincent Raney’s dome “really looks like a space ship has landed.”
She traced the design to the inspiration of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, and Frank Lloyd Wright, who had designed a domed theater that was never built.
In a report to the commission, she noted that many similar domed theaters have been demolished recently and the Century 21 is one of the last. These included the demolition of a domed theater in Pleasant Hill last year. Two other domed theaters alongside the Century 21 are slated for demolition. Preservationists did not argue to save them because they have been badly altered.
Michelle Bevis, whose family has for generations owned the Century 21 as well as the adjoining Winchester Mystery House, argued that the theater, while wonderful in its time, has grown outdated, no longer attracted audiences, and was never intended by its architect – her late grandfather – to last forever.
She said Raney told her his inspiration wasn’t Bucky Fuller but the great classic domes of the past. “He would be very amused today to hear people discuss his domes as ‘space age,’ ” she said.
“As a family, we take our guardianship very seriously. We take preservation very seriously,” she said, arguing that the goal of the family was to preserve the more important Winchester Mystery House.
But her comments did not sway the commission which, by guidance set by the National Park Service for state historic preservation agencies, makes its decisions based on architectural and historic merit and not economic or political considerations.
Bevis did provide some shocking news to the preservationists who crowded the room. The hearing took place at Asilomar on the Monterey Peninsula, where the annual California Preservation Conference was just getting underway.
The theater was no longer as well preserved as Poletti, just moments before, had described. The original seats, the lobby fixtures, all had been removed by the tenant in recent weeks, shortly after they shuttered the theater.
“It was a shock,” Bevis said.
“We want to see the Century come down. But still, it was my grandfather’s theater, so it was an emotional thing for our family.”
Preservationists believe the Century 21 can still be restored and returned to use as a cinema or performing arts space.