Fighting a Theater's 'Dome-icide' in Pleasant Hill

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Courtesy of Save Independent Film and the CinéArts Dome in Pleasant Hill

The fight to save Pleasant Hill’s domed CineArts movie theater is a new kind of preservation struggle. It’s not a fight to save a classic old-time art-house where a live organist emerges from the stage floor. Rather, the mid-century theater is younger than many residents of the city that gave permission to raze it.

Opened in 1967, the wooden dome in the Crossroads Shopping Center falls short of the national-standard 50-year age limit for historical preservation. But those appealing Pleasant Hill’s permission to developer SyWest to replace the structure with a new Dick’s Sporting Goods say it nonetheless has historic significance, as a symbol of the Bay Area’s postwar suburban boom. The theater showed its last movie (Stanley Kubrik's 2001) on April 21.

“In a region like ours, where growth only took off in the post-World War II era, structures representing that dawn of suburbia really do represent an important part of our history,” said Martha Ross, of Save the Pleasant Hill Dome.

The group is appealing Pleasant Hill’s demolition permit on the grounds that the city didn’t properly review the dome’s value as a historic and cultural resource. “Under city law, a structure 45 years or older can be considered,” Ross said in an email. “The dome is 46.” The appeal is scheduled to go before the Pleasant Hill city council on May 6, when the council will hear public comment.

The group wants to preserve the dome as a theater, starting with a petition and a lobbying effort before the Council, but their lawyer has said they would sue to for an injunction to stop the demolition if need be.

“Aesthetically there’s a case for preserving it because it really is a roadside landmark,” said Heather David, a Bay Area historian who is especially interested in mid-century modern design. It’s part of a “visible commercial strip” that people can see from the freeway.

“This is a landmark for Pleasant Hill and the surrounding communities. People use it to situate themselves,” Ross said.

The dome is one of a crop of similarly shaped movie theaters to pop up in the Bay Area in the 60s and 70s. The first one, Century 21 in San Jose, opened in 1964. David said she was girding for a preservation fight there, as San Jose begins to transform into a city of “urban villages” in the mold of Santana Row.

While architecturally unique and visually striking, David said many of the Bay Area’s domed theaters are doomed because they’re just too young. The Bay Area is facing “dome-icide,” she said, borrowing a phrase from Los Angeles preservationist Chris Nichols, who helped save the Cinerama Dome there.

“Unfortuantely the domes are so recent that most people remember them. And they have to face it that, boy, if the domes are historic then I’m historic too.” Most of the domes built in the 70s don’t stand a chance at preservation, David said, but with enough public support the early ones do, including the one in Pleasant Hill.

“There was a time when people wanted to tear down Victorians. My case is that if we don’t save some of this now we are erasing a visual trail of our history,” David said. “Are we going to go straight from 1950 to 1990s with mixed-use yellow stucco and nothing in between?”