Word came out this week that Seattle’s Northgate Mall was finally going to be getting an upgrade, part of which is going to involve demolishing the Medical Office Building and the Northgate Theatre that have long stood empty and unused.
Since I had some time to kill yesterday, I wandered down to the Northgate Mall and spent some time wandering around the old buildings. I was able to shoot my way around about three quarters of the soon-to-be-demolished buildings before mall security took noticed and asked me to stop. To their credit, the guy that spoke to me was very polite, just letting me know that the mall didn’t allow photography on mall property, and told me that I’d be welcome to take photographs from the street if I wished.
While working on processing the photos and getting them uploaded into a Flickr photoset, I spent some time poking around the ‘net to see what I could find out about the history of the buildings. While there wasn’t a ton of information immediately forthcoming, what I was able to find was more interesting than I’d initially expected.
As it turns out, when the Northgate Mall opened in April of 1950, it was “the country’s first regional shopping center defined as a ‘mall’ (although there were at least three predecessor shopping centers).”
Northgate was the brainchild of Rex Allison, president of Bon Marché. Before World War II, he envisioned a suburban shopping center. The economic boom following Allied victory in 1945 allowed Allied Stores, the firm that owned Bon Marché, to involve developers Ben H. Erlichman and W. Walter Williams, who formed the Suburban Co. (later The Northgate Co.). They retained architect John H. Graham Jr. to design the project and announced their plans in February 1948. In 1949, Allied bought out Erlichman and Williams and appointed James B. Douglas (1909-2005) to run the project as president.
The Bon Marché planned a three-story, $3 million dollar store at the south end of the complex. Other tenants signing on early were the National Bank of Commerce, an A&P grocery store, Ernst Hardware, Newberry’s, and Nordstrom’s shoes. There was room for 80 stores, which could be serviced by an underground tunnel. There would also be a four-story medical-dental center. A five-cent shuttle bus was offered from the end of Seattle Transit System service at N 85th Street.
Over the years, spurred by Seattle’s growth and the construction of Interstate 5, the mall grew. The theatre was added not long after the mall first opened; I-5’s completion prompted a $10 million expansion in 1964, and originally open-air, the mall was roofed over and enclosed in 1974. Eventually, however, age and changing interests doomed the non-retail spaces of the mall: the office building and the theatre.
I couldn’t find a date for when the office building closed, but the theatre was in use until as recently as 2003. 2002 was the first time it looked like the theatre was closing its doors:
The Northgate Theater, which opened in 1951 and was one of the country’s first mall cinemas, closed last night, a spokesman for Loews Cineplex Entertainment, the bankrupt movie chain that operates the theater, confirmed yesterday.
With its single screen and more than 1,000 seats, the theater was a relic of another time and place, said Angela Forest, marketing director for Northgate Mall.
“It’s kind of the death of an era,” she said. “Everyone has moved on to megaplexes.”
The theater has deteriorated in recent years and acquired a bad name, Forest said.
“It kind of got a reputation for broken equipment, broken seats and for being poorly maintained,” she said. “I don’t feel that it was a big draw for the public.”
In late 2002, it looked like there might be a reprieve for the theatre, with plans to repurpose it into a venue for live music.
The movie lover’s loss is the music lover’s gain: The majestic Northgate Theatre, closed since February after showing movies for 51 years, is about to become the Northgate Music Theater. Call it a sequel.
With a capacity of 2,380, the Northgate will be more than twice the size of the Showbox and will be the second-largest, full-time pop venue in Seattle. The Northgate is larger than the 1,384-capacity Moore but slightly smaller than the 2,807-capacity Paramount….
The Northgate will serve alcohol, but most shows will be all-ages concerts. Steichen notes that kids will be able to access the venue via the nearby park-and-ride transfer station, and adults should be attracted by “4,500 free parking places.”
The once-grand Northgate Theatre was designed by John Graham Jr., who also led a team of architects designing the Space Needle. But the theater had fallen into disrepair in recent years. One of its charming features was a second-level “crying room,” where parents could take fussy kids….
By late 2003, the theatre was going through one last attempt at reopening, this time as what was described by Jonas Clark Elliott in a comment on the Cinema Treasures website as “a rave house”.
I’m not sure how well they’ll “restore” it, but here is what’s left to see: Original terazzo flooring and stylized Northwest murals in the lobby, and the neon. Oodles of modern neon. Under the marquee are countless rings, each made from four concentric circles of white neon. They range from small to huge. Some stand alone, others overlap, some are one inside another. Some go around circular columns. Others make their way through cut-outs in the glass lobby windows, and meet others on the ceiling inside! The auditorium has a few more of these, though the ones closest to the stage area have been removed, and a few of those inside have traces of red or green paint, probably added to tone down the light. Also, the side walls have vertical coves containing cobalt-blue tubes. I’ve never seen these used during a rave, but the under-marquee tubes and some of the in-theatre ones are still put to use. The upper section seats are still there, but the sloped lower floor has been cleared to make dancing room. But not very well – watch out for bolts sticking up here and there! I’m not kidding… But for what it is/was, it’s a fair place for what use they found: raves. Dancing and live music.
As with earlier efforts, the “rave house” shut its doors at some undetermined time, and the complex has sat empty and unused since then. With the announcement that the old buildings will be demolished to make way for Northgate’s upcoming improvements, it seems that over fifty years after ushering in the era of centralized shopping and entertainment complexes, it’s time to say goodbye to the Northgate Theatre and its neighboring medical building once and for all.