Pleasant Hill city officials tell me and the Contra Costa Times they have no control over a development company’s desire to demolish the landmark CineArts Dome movie theater–the city’s first movie theater– and replace it with an architecturally indistinctive chain sporting goods store.
“There isn’t anything we can do about the Dome being planned for demolition,” Pleasant Hill City Councilman Jack Weir told the Contra Costa Times.
“Since the site is privately owned and controlled, preservation of the theater would largely fall on the property owner,” adds Troy Fujimoto, senior planner with the city.
Discussions about the fate of the Dome and its replacement–a 73,000-square-foot Dick’s Sporting Goods–in the Crossroads Shopping Center along Interstate 680 will come before Pleasant Hill’s Planning Commission Tuesday evening.
City officials have begun to ring the Dome’s death knell even as a city report, released as an addendum in advance of Tuesday’s meeting, calls the Dome Theater “one of the decreasing number of buildings that represents the period of development that established Pleasant Hill as a city.”
The Dome Theater is associated with an important period of development in Pleasant Hill’s history, and is one of a diminishing number of buildings that serve as visible reminders of that period. With few alterations, the functioning CineArts Theater is also the best remaining example of the distinctive domed movie theater building type in the East Bay.
Sywest Development, the development arm of Syufy, the company that originally built the Dome in 1967, has been looking to redevelop the southern half of the shopping center for years.
The city is essentially throwing up its hands at the likelihood of the Dome being demolished. But lately, the city has shown cognizance of deep-rooted concerns among central Contra Costa residents and film lovers who worry about the loss of the Dome, the only theater showing independent art-house fare this side of the Caldecott Tunnel.
Weir told the Times that an unidentified group is exploring the possibility of screening art-house films at some venue somewhere else in the city. Nice thought, Mr. Weir, but part of the reason people are so impassioned about this issue is because they don’t want to lose the pleasure of also seeing their movies at the Dome.
It should be noted that at one one point in its planning history, the city understood the desirability of keeping a movie theater in the shopping center.
In 2006, the city approved a “Contra Costa Center Specific Plan” to guide development of the shopping center. The plan encouraged the development of a movie theater in that area, Fujimoto says. But Fujimoto also pointed out that the plan never mandated development of a movie theater nor preservation of the existing Dome theater.
He also said the building was evaluated for potential historical significance. At that time, in 2006, he says, it “was determined not to be a potentially significant resource.”
This determination of not being a significant resource may come as a surprise to the more than 800 people who have “liked” the Save Independent Film and the CineArts Dome in Pleasant Hill Facebook page. And the 2100 people, many from Pleasant Hill, who have signed the Change.org petition, asking for SyWest Development to consider preserving the Dome. Then there are the folks who regularly go onto the I Saw it At the Dome Facebook page to share their fond memories of films and important, life-changing personal moments that took place while seeing movies there.
The Dome obviously has a lot of meaning to a lot of people in the area, and many consider it to be the most distinctive building in Pleasant Hill, if not in one of the most notable buildings in central Contra Costa County.
Actually, one way the Dome could have easily been saved if it were eligible for listing under the California Register of Historical Places. But, alas, it would need to be more than 50 years old. Damn, built in 1967, the Dome missed this “historical” marker by four years.
In this city report, the city put effort into either trying to prove or deny the building’s historical status under another set of legal criteria for the California Environmental Quality Act. Meeting this criteria would allow the city to declare the building to be “of exceptional importance.” In the end, the report concludes that the Dome doesn’t meet those criteria.
However, in language and content, the report undercuts its conclusions by presenting a great deal of history about Pleasant Hill, Central Contra Costa, the growth of the East Bay movie theater industry and the Dome’s place in all of that.
Reading it, I think, the city and SyWest Development could really muck things up and destroy a real treasure — something of real distinction in a region that tends to lack such qualities — if they tear this movie theater down. And, for what? A sporting goods store, one that looks like pretty much any sporting goods store in any strip mall around here.
But I digress. The history. The Dome. The Glory.
In the 1950s, Pleasant Hill was emerging as a small farming community, according to the report. Then came the large subdivisions, fueled by the post-World War II baby boom and America’s expansion into suburbia.
The year after Pleasant Hill was incorporated in 1961, Montgomery Ward’s opened on Monument Boulevard just east of Interstate 680. It was the anchor of the new Contra Costa Shopping Center, built to serve the city’s rapidly expanding residential population.
Century Theaters opened its 895-seat Century 21 Theater in Pleasant Hill on February 21, 1967. The first filmed screened in that marvelous domed roof auditorium–built by fastening a concentric array of 20 individual arched steel struts to a center hub: David Lean’s epic adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s Russian Revolution novel Doctor Zhivago.
The Dome’s named changed from Century 21 to Century 5 when four theaters were added to the rear of the auditorium in 1974. (I think I went to see the Academy Award-winning Paul Newman-Robert Redford Depression-era caper movie, The Sting, in one of those smaller theaters.) In 2003, Century Theatres transferred the facility to its growing art theater franchise, CineArts.
Raymond Syufy is a rather interesting figure in the Bay Area movie scene, and in the history of the film distribution business. The city report says:
After working at local movie theaters, in 1940, at the age of 23, Syufy took charge of his own movie theater, the Rita in Vallejo. The theater business at this time was firmly in the grip of the major film producers who often kept the best first-run films away from independent operators. The U.S. Justice Department had been trying to force them to open their product to others. Independent theaters were also in the fight, forming trade associations and initiating lawsuits. Raymond Syufy, having attended law school, took up this cause starting in the late 1940s. A major battle for independent theaters was won in the Supreme Court in 1949. This legal settlement enabled independent theater operators like Syufy to improve their film offerings dramatically, and the company expanded during the 1950s and 1960s, opening additional theaters as well as many drive-ins, moving outward from California to Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.
The report notes: “The company’s buildings gained a reputation for interesting architecture, with a number of its indoor theaters featuring a domed ‘igloo’ design.”
Meanwhile, according to the city report, Rainey also designed, for Syufy, a new dome theater in suburban San Jose. San Jose’s Century 21 Theatre opened in 1964, the mothership in a series of Rainey-designed dome theaters that would grace roadsides in the 1960s. Raney designed all of the Syufy Century theaters from 1964 through the early 1990s.
The report also notes the significance of the architectural form of the dome that Rainey’s designs embody: “Though Raney’s dome theaters were not designed using a geodesic dome, popularized in the 1950s by R. Buckminster Fuller, the dome in general was nevertheless a popular and “futuristic” architectural form in the 1960s and 1970s and came to be a familiar characteristic in the Syufy chain of suburban movie theaters.
The city report contends that the Dome theater off Interstate 680 did not play a significant role in the commercial development of Pleasant Hill. However, the report acknowledges that it does exhibit “a level of local importance within Pleasant Hill.” Perhaps it was important to Pleasant Hill for non-commercial reasons — for reasons of culture or community, for instance.
That’s because the 1960s was a period of rapid expansion for Pleasant Hill, and the Dome theater was one of many structures completed during that decade to serve the modern needs of the growing suburban community.
According to the report, research indicates that the Dome theater was Pleasant Hill’s first movie theater, and also that it was the first domed theater along the Interstate 680 corridor.
Weir tells the Times that SyWest has agreed to donate artifacts and memorabilia from the theater to the Pleasant Hill Historical Society. The developer also plans to put up a plaque or monument marking the site of the dome theater.
I suppose that is supposed to be some consolation.