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.

Northgate Medical Office Building and Theatre, Seattle, WA

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.

Northgate Medical Office Building, Seattle, WA

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.

Northgate Theatre, Seattle, WA

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.

Northgate Medical Office Building, Seattle, WA

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.

Northgate Theatre, Seattle, WA

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.”

Northgate Theatre, Seattle, WA

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….

Northgate Theatre, Seattle, WA

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.

Northgate Theatre, Seattle, WA

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.

The rest of my photos are here.

17 thoughts on “Northgate Theatre and Medical Office Building

  1. Lots o’ random bits:

    My first trip to Seattle (1993) I remember two things vividly — my first Dick’s burger and the HUGE marquee on the Northgate Cinema. And it was HUGE.

    There’s a long-standing urban legend that Cinerama showed Star Wars first-run in ’77. It didn’t. Northgate did. And I saw the re-release in ’97 at Northgate with some locals who saw it originally there.

    We saw the Matrix there in ’99. Five minutes from the end, the film broke. Disappointed, we walked out to an apologetic theater manager. “It’s not your fault,” I said. “Cineplex Odeon hasn’t given you any money to keep the place up.” He said, “That’s a fact! And for that, next time you want to see a movie here, ask for me and I’ll let you in free.” We got free passes and a happy manager offering free seats. Unfortunately, we never used them, mainly because Northgate kept drawing crappy movies while Oaktree (which I hate, personally) got the good ones.

    And towards the end, it was really ratty. Exposed springs in the seats. Sticky floors. And the screen was in bad shape. I think the last movie I saw there was The World Is Not Enough. (I didn’t pay, so I didn’t get to test the manager’s memory.)

    The rave place lasted nine months, I think. They didn’t get their lease renewed because Simon was going to demolish the theater in early 2004. Didn’t happen, of course. Simon jumped the gun on the Thornton Creek deal. The Barnes and Noble was supposed to be open this summer.

    I think Northwest Medical Teams had offices in the Medical Building until a few years ago, but at the same time I remember there being no tenants in that building in ’97.

  2. Thank you Michael! I almost choked when dw wrote “Star Wars” played at Northgate in 1977! Has it been that long people cannot remember the long engagement of Star Wars at the UA Cinema 150??

  3. Interesting stories! I have fond memories of the Northgate Theater, being a lifelong Seattle resident, and am somewhat sad to see it go.

    However, I have always had a strange fascination with the adjacent medical office complex. Does anyone have more history on it?? I have heard rumors that it is haunted…any truth to those??

  4. I actually worked at the Northgate from 95 until 99. The whole time we were always told, “don’t get too comfy….they’ll close it any day now!” But even as bad as it was….I loved that place. It was hard to watch Cineplex Odeon and then Loews just let it run into the ground. It had such potential and there was such a following by those too who shared the same love of this huge single screen theatre. Now all you see at best are 300 seaters with little screens. It’s sad to see it gone.

  5. The Medical center was actually partly the “NORTHGATE HOSPITAL”, and early “NORTH END” hospital, The emergency room was in the back side, you drove right against the theater back wall to get to the entrancel.

    I transported many a patient there in the late 70’s until it closed and was absorbed by that other nearby hospital, and remember the NG Theater as a young boy, in fact OAK Tree plazw is sitting on what was my Grade School property, OAK LAKE ELEMENTARY!!

    Now that was a grand building, oak floors and staircases, 2 storys in the original, and 4 in the addition… memories.. but what a time in artitecture, not the slap it up concrete they do now.
    Bothell Wa

  6. Great work and great memories. I was born at Northgate hospital in 1959 and over the years I have thoroughly enjoyed watching people’s reactions when I tell them I was born in a shopping mall. My grandmother was a nurse at Northgate and one of the original staff when the hospital opened in 1953. Her photos show that the hospital was added on to over they years with the south overhang not being part of the original building. Ah well, gone but certainly not forgotten. Oh yeah, first movie I ever saw was Mary Poppins at the Northgate theater.


    Oak Harbor, Wa.

  7. Correction to previous comment – Northgate hospital opened in 1950, not 1953. You see, my keyboard has the “3” and the “0” right next to each other and…ummm….yeahhhh…Well, that’s all.

  8. Haven’t lived in Seattle for 10 years but was born at Northgate too in ’65. I guess a little shopping and child birth goes together, better a hospital than a cab or sidewalk. First movie I saw there was Snow White, real shame it was allowed to rot and go under, it was a great theatre. (I first saw Mary Poppins at the Ballard Theatre on Market, that one probably bit the dust too huh?)I guess there’s not enough money to keep these nice old haunts alive after we tally up what needs to be thrown at our sports teams to keep them around. By the way, was the kingdome paid off before it was reduced to dust?

  9. I don’t know about the Kingdome (it went way long before I moved to Seattle), but there’s still a theater in Ballard. It’s not the same building (apparently they were going to remodel, but the old building just couldn’t be brought up to code), but it’s in the same spot, and the new building is a gorgeous theater.

  10. I recall going to opening night at the Northgate Theatre in 1951. Seats that reclined a bit and a big screen were the big draws. If I could only recall the film that was being shown then. Anyone out there remember?

  11. In the beginning of this thread DW said: ” There’s a long-standing urban legend that Cinerama showed Star Wars first-run in ‘77. It didn’t. Northgate did. ” This was not quite true. Star Wars opened in Seattle at the Cinema 150 which was couple of blocks from the Cinerama. This is also mentioned here: http://cinematreasures.org/theater/4370/

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