Local, alternative perspective. Insightful stories for the Santa Clara Valley.

CENTURY 21 THEATERS, “SAVE THE DOMES,” BECOMES “ELIGIBLE” FOR NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES

THE “CENTURY 21 THEATER,” NOW “ELIGIBLE” FOR THE NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES, IS CELEBRATED BY LOCAL GROUPS— PRESERVATION ACTION COUNCIL of SAN JOSE & CALIFORNIA PIONEERS OF SANTA CLARA COUNTY — AS ONE OF VINCENT RANEY’S GREAT ARCHITECTURE CONTRIBUTIONS.

“The Dome” was added to the list just before Fourth of July 2014; whereas a notification was published as of 11 July 2014 by the Director of the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., saying that Vincent Raney’s architectural creation is “eligible” for consideration.

The Century 21 Theater in San Jose was included with several others on the “Weekly List of Actions Taken on Properties: 6/30/14 through 7/03/14.”  In other words, it just made it onto the list before the holiday.

As of this current consideration for eligibility, Century 21 Theater is now included on a list with these other California designations, so named thereon:

  • Villa Carlotta (Altadena/Los Angeles County);
  • Connell, Arthur and Kathleen, House (Pebble Beech/Monterey County);
  • Fort Ord Station Veterinary Hospital (Marina/Monterey County)

Century 21 Theater is situated off of Winchester Boulevard at 3161 Olsen Drive, San Jose.

Ironically, the domes are situated adjacent to another San Jose landmark that has long ago received the official status of being a national landmark: The Winchester Mystery House.

“National Register of Historic Places listings in Santa Clara County, California” is listed by Wikipedia with a current list of 105 items; which of that, 30 are properly in the City of San Jose.  The city once had 31 of 106, but the Donner-Houghton House was Destroyed by fire as of 19 July 2007, just after being listed as of 24 January  2002 (#01001483).

The Century 21 domes are perhaps one Vincent Raney’s and San Jose’s more overlooked landmarks; although, now made “eligible” for that esteemed appreciation like these other ones. This theater is designed by a man who had a vision for everything that was from the mundane to the worldly.  The San Francisco Bay Areas’s own Syufy Enterprises/Century Theaters lived to that credo.  It realized that the tradition of movie-going was to take its patron from an experience of everyday life and then transform it into something pleasurable, imaginative and larger than life.  The architectural history of movie theaters embodies that idea, whereas both Raney and Syufy realized that.

What many people overlook is that Raney designed things like this theater and schools, but he is also well-known throughout the nation (if not the world) as the person that had originally planned designs for the United Nations “Capital” in San Francisco’s Presidio.  Raney gave us an escape from the mundane trials of everyday work, as much as the vision of a United Nations building that gave us hopes of a new and peaceful world order.  After all, it was back on 25 April 1945 that the UN Conference on International Organization opened in San Francisco, thereby giving the world the drafting of the United Nations Charter.

At that,  the city of San Francisco became host to these first 50 nations, thereafter considering a  proposal from Vincent Raney.   Of all the men in the world, it is Raney who designed a plan for the first U.N building, but also (years later) a space-age movie theater in the shape of a dome.  Preservationists question: if this was actually part of Raney’s imagination, vision, and outlook on daily life; then, why not ours still today?  By the way, both of these designs by Raney used a global or spherical dome-like theme…. so it was significant to him.  Plus, Raney almost had the contract for the U.N building, before it was instead decided for New York City.  (See that interesting power-play by New York’s Rockefeller family).

But, why was this theater important to Raney and why is it in the shape of a dome?  In the modern and democratic age, movie-going became a ritual of sorts; whereas the “movie palace,” just as celebrated as the church itself, was often built with a splendid architecture that was made to create wonder on the outside — that is, just as much as it did inside with the big screen.

(Did you know that one of the abandoned Century domes has since been made into a  church?  See Cornerstone Community Church of the Almaden Neighborhood of San Jose at its location)

The English word “dome” is a derivative from the Greek and Latin domus.  Think of the historical timeline to the Renaissance, people like Filippo Brunelleschi thought of it as the Domus Dei, or “House of God.”  Brunelleschi, the world-renowned architect from Santa Clara County’s sister city-province, Florence (Italy), perfected the dome like no other, thereby making it soar to new heights.  What’s more interesting is that Brunelleschi had to compete for his architectural idea just like Vincent Raney; although, the designer of “Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore” quite made his mark.  He accomplished this when his Florentine competitors were asked to exemplify their abilities, such as by standing an egg upright on a piece of marble.  This is sort of similar in idea to how Raney proposed to buttress a globe over the top of his design for the United Nations (while also including a tower at the side).    In his challenge, Brunelleschi then gave one end of the egg a blow on its surface,  thus making it stand upright.  His fellow competitors protested and said that they could have done the same; but, Filippo laughed as if to say “but they didn’t!”  Truly, that’s because they didn’t have his vision or imagination.   What both Raney and Brunelleschi understood is that the egg is universal, ingenious and complete in its natural design — like the womb from which we are all born. Take that to further ends, whereas for Raney, that idea had to be as simple, evident and accessible as a ticket to a movie, or even a breakfast of 3 eggs and bacon at the counter of a Bob’s Big Boy (which today’s is the Flames Coffee Shop in front of Century 21).

Before the National Park Service’s most recent consideration, some of San Jose’s residents assumed that the Century Theaters were nothing more than a poor use of land, outdated, rash and some obscure example of a suburban experiment that should just be demolished.   Then, preservationists and a list of other neighborhood stakeholders took this fight to City Hall. Once again, with great irony, they all came to the newest of iconic domes in San Jose, designed by world-renowned architect,  Richard Meier.  That night on 10 June 2014, who lost under the shadow of the dome at San Jose’s City Hall was Mayor Chuck Reed and Council members Pete Constant, Johnny Khamis and Pierluigi Oliverio.  In their opinions, preservation of Vaney’s old Century Theater was standing in the way of so-called progress.

The debate was rather heated, but right from the start and weeks before the decision, Pete Constant was different from the Mayor and his fellow council members. He had remained outspoken about being against the theater’s preservation.  The Century 21 Theater is in Constant’s own district and not too far from the border of that of Oliverio’s.  But, Reed, Constant, Khamis and Oliverio lost, not just to the vociferous speak-outs by activists at City Hall; but, also within the overall council vote, which turned out to be 7 in favor and 4 opposed.

  • See the Video of that part of the Agenda, concerning the Century 21 Theater, as of 10 June 2014 from the Council Chambers at San Jose City Hall:

http://sanjose.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=52&clip_id=7435&meta_id=473184

  • A City of San Jose Memorandum, “Historic Landmark Nomination (HL14-212) for the ‘Century 21 Theatre’ at 3161 Olsen Drive” (dated 20 May 2014) outlines the significance of the theater, making an argument for its preservation.

The struggle is not over and preservationists continue to argue in support of this fantastic “novelty,” but further pointing out that the Century theaters fit within a larger scheme, including architectural movements like those of Googie architectureFuturism and Retro-futurismAtomic Age (design) and even Art Deco.  For example, see this one YouTube video, “Stop the Dome-alition!”

Vincent Raney’s life and career impacted our lives significantly; because it represents a particular era and legacy of our own.   He was a worldly man of vision, but he was also an “everyman.”  The site of Raney’s planned “Capital of the World” was ironically at the Presidio of San Francisco which served as an army post for three nations.  What’s ironic is that this site in San Francisco later became the fascination of Bay Area film aficionado, George Lucas of Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic.   So, it’s odd — whether it’s here or there — that we no longer see Raney’s place within that architectural, social and cultural history; but, more so, that when we’re reminded of it, that some of us do so with inner conflict and dismissive attitudes.  San Jose’s iconic domed Century Theaters is where most residents first saw everything from movies like Doctor Zhivago to Star Wars, aside from those much later.  (One of the last blockbuster movies to be seen at Century 24, further south on Winchester Boulevard, was Wolf of Wall Street, before that site was demolished.)   But, until recently, the theaters were not for preservation or redevelopment enhancement.  It did not matter that Century 21 Theater was the first of its kind, built for the Bay Area’s historic and successful Syufy Enterprises.

Syufy is a company that remains just as iconic in the movie and theater industry as the flagship building that Raney had designed for it.   The first “Century Theater” branded building of this kind was the Century 21 in San Jose.

The company that had built it had once became a defendant in United States v. Syufy Enterprises (circa 1990). This was an antitrust case decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; but, which was found in favor of Syufy.  That case originated nearly 25 years ago, whereas the Century 21 Theater itself opened in 1964 and was 50 years old when local preservationists started taking actions to preserve it.  At that golden anniversary, the lease was terminated.

There are records concerning the Century 21 Theater and its similarly modeled buildings throughout California and Nevada; which is aside from that of Vincent Raney’s separate portfolio of complete works.  Yet, the legacy of U.S. v. Syufy is just as well noted by several legal scholars.   It all represents how significant this company was during its heyday.  The lawsuit represents the company’s stake in the social culture of that time; whereas, the Century 21 building, itself, represents how it communicated and did business at large… the actual “brick and mortar of it.”

This is not the first time that proponents wanted to wipe out Century Theatres and its company, Syufy.  The company has a long history of litigation, often against its much larger competitor, AMC Theatres.  Litigation between Syufy and AMC had eventually quieted; but originally, Century Theatres founder, Raymond Syufy, was fighting against none other than the film producers themselves.

The Syufy family were innovators and pioneers then and continue that tradition today. Even as a small company, this family was efficient and extremely aggressive. This David went to court in 1948 against the Goliaths of the motion picture industry to help break the monopoly power they (Paramount, MGM, Wamer Brothers, RKO, Fox) held over the exhibitors of the films they produced. The Big Five, as these producers came to be known, were fully integrated across all three vertical stages–production, distribution, and exhibition. This monopoly owned 70% of all first-run movie theaters in the country and exercised near absolute control of the supply of first run movies. They illegally fixed ticket prices in the lowest stage (exhibition), completely monopolized the distribution of Hollywood movies, and effectively conspired to eliminate all competitors in the production stage(2).

One of the small exhibitors who was instrumental in helping the district courts, and later the Supreme Court, break this monopoly was Raymond Syufy. The Big Five were ordered by the Supreme Court to divest themselves vertically of all holdings (first-run theaters) and relinquish their control of the first-run exhibition market.

See this Stanford University paper, Syufy Enterprises: An Example of What To Do , as well as the original lawsuit from 1990, published courtesy of New York University:

Syufy’s victory in lawsuits is what allowed him to expand and develop during the following decades.   Soon, Syufy introduced multiplexes or multiple screen theaters. By the 1980s, Silicon Valley Residents would go to the theater to see the science fiction movie Tron or War Games, based on the new development of hi-tech arcade games like “Pong.” Syufy was a genius in the industry and recognizing the changing times, thereby featuring these movies, but also including the first high-tech arcades at theater lobbies and cafes.  This became one of the popular venues where the new Atari games, such as Pong and Pac-Man, were often played.  Syufy and his Century theaters were not only inspirational to the likes of George Lucas or his fellow director and local Saratoga High School graduate, Steven Spielberg; but also to people like Nolan Bushnell, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and others.  Indeed… the makers of today’s Hollywood and Silicon Valley were both inspired by these theaters.   It’s the type of imagination that transformed both industries and the world.

In all this stretch of history, think about the genre and collection of films from that period of the late-1970’s to 1990 alone, wherein this is both striking and ironic enough:

  • Star Wars, launched in 1977, became a full-on saga;
  •  A View to A Kill, debuted in 1985, was one of many James Bond flicks, this one taking place in Silicon Valley;
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, debuted in 1986, and was featured in San Francisco and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  It was one of a series of episodic films.
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit, debuted in 1988 and taking place in the fictional “Toontown,” near Hollywood.   In that film, villains want to demolish Toontown to construct a public highway in the name of “progress.”
  •  Back to the Future trilogies debuted from 1985 to 1990, featuring the music of Bay Area hit maker, Huey Lewis.  Those films often contrasted traditional main-street America with 1980’s era mall-culture and the mad topsy-turvy world of mass suburbanization.

Whether or not Century 21 Theater presented each of the films, or they were presented at Syufy’s other venues nearby, they nevertheless remain inextricable from Syufy Enterprises itself.  Moreover, it’s the legacy of said filmmakers and the contributions of that era’s technology industry.  Syufy’s Century Theater challenged the old-guard and fostered the next generation of believers and creators.  The Century 21 theater is  a monument to that entire era.  It was here that residents had an entertaining view of their own lives.  It was here, that it became “larger than life,” and then a realization.

Nowadays, the irony is how much of this is forgotten; whereas, Century is more known as the brand owned by Cinemark, which operates theaters under several brands, including its new CinéArts across the street from the old Century Theatres.   Within this new framework is CinéArts at Santana Row.  (Elsewhere, and mostly in western states, other business names include Tinseltown USA and Rave Cinemas.)

The current predicament developed when Century Theaters was acquired as of the year 2006, now controlled by a chain known as Cinemark Theatres.  Somehow, Century 21, 22, and 23 theaters in San Jose, still remained owned by the original company, Syufy Enterprises; whereas, the land that they sit on belongs to the current owners of the Winchester Mystery House.  In early 2013 it was announced that the theater property that is known to be occupied by the “Winchester Theatres” was soon to be redeveloped.  The San Jose Business Journal said on 19 March 2014,

The owner of the San Jose shopping and socializing hub, Maryland-based Federal Realty Investment Trust,  Wednesday said it has entered “a long-term” land lease for the 11.6-acre Century Theatres site located just across Winchester Boulevard from Santana Row…

We previously reported that the owners of the Century Theatres site — also the owners of the Winchester Mystery House next door — were seeking a tenant for a 50-year ground lease on the property.

It’s now known that the Century 21 Theaters will be preserved, whether or not they become national landmarks; but the question is still asked: how will this number 21 and/or the other Century 22 and 23 buildings be incorporated into the new “redevelopment” plan?   How will these older buildings be used themselves?  Currently, preservationists are simply trying to preserve the buildings and dignify their status as local, state and national landmarks.  But, meanwhile, there is little to no knowledge as to what comes next.  What is the master plan for this property?  What’s in the city’s vision?  Now that this is a local landmark, how will it be preserved?

Laurel Prevetti, Assistant Planning Director for the City of San Jose, once assured that the public process overseeing the Century Theaters would remain open for debate and consideration.  Since then, however, Prevetti has resigned from her city job, including  numerous other city employees.  (Prevetti now works for the City of Los Gatos)  Meanwhile, certain powers within the City of San Jose have continued to push for progress.

The city, landowners, and developers do not seem to be too transparent about what’s next.  Before Mayor Reed was voted against with significant opposition by the other City Council Members, San Jose Mercury Writer, Sal Pizarro simply said:

The mayor has penned a letter to the Office of Historic Preservation that essentially tells the state agency to back off from nominating the space-age Winchester Century theaters to the National Register of Historic Places.

Reed’s letter says the nomination is inconsistent with the city’s Urban Village Plan for the Winchester Boulevard site where the Century 21, 22 and 23 domes currently stand.

The other council members seemed to think that was inappropriate of the Mayor; but, notwithstanding, some neighborhood activists and stakeholders wonder as to what Mayor Reed’s “Urban Village Plan” entails beyond their generality?  What did the plan mean then?  But, now, how exactly does it relate to this decision to preserve the Raney’s Century Theater?

Oddly, you can think of the San Jose Museum of Art or Opera San Jose as forgotten examples of how old remnants being merged with the new — and quite symbolically at that — can be accommodated.  The old San Post Office Building, now a wing of the art museum, is actually one of the many such sites on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.  Some preservationists question if the Century 21 Theater dome be used similarly.

Raney’s “Googie” type buildings, which includes everything from coffee shops, to gas stations, to movie theaters and even Junípero Serra High School, are just some of the many more examples; but they are often overlooked as being significant enough in the imagination, such as to represent a collective community and way of life.   We don’t recall how it changed the face of so-called suburban America, either from San Jose, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or elsewhere.  The biases of “now” can overwhelm that from an earlier time.

Even the “Futurism” of the past is to be preserved and understood with that of current-day interpretations and expression.  We can make a comparison to major Space Age examples like Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) or the Space Needle, but it is not surprising that the earliest and most humble of examples began with coffee shops or theaters. Indeed, that’s the origin of the very name “Googie.” Wikipedia: “The origin of the name Googie dates to 1949, when architect John Lautner designed the West Hollywood coffee shop Googies, which had distinct architectural characteristics.” We don’t recognize it because it’s erased from history — literally and figuratively “demolished.”

Pac-SJ, California Pioneers, and SAVE the DOMES shared a link on Facebook as of June 23:

As we eagerly wait for news regarding the National Register, let us not forget that our journey is not over. We still want awareness, we still want signatures! Make sure the community knows what’s going on– many I’m sure do not. While we have great support at the city level, there are still some in City Hall who oppose the preservation effort. ….Help continue the battle to Save the Domes!
Sign the Petition to “Save the Winchester Domes”:
http://www.change.org/petitions/save-the-winchester-domes

 

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