This week’s featured guest writer, Chris Cook, describes the importance of Portland, Oregon’s historic theaters in the context of preservation and sustainability. Basically, in his city at least, environmentally-minded folks naturally gravitate to these venues over the big box cineplexes, and for good reason. For more on Chris and his excited brain, scroll to the end of the blog.
Portland is a remarkably walkable city, especially considering that it is a relatively young western city which languished a few decades in between its industrial heyday and its current population boom. A well timed preservation movement in the 1970s and Portland’s own cultural idiosyncrasies enabled the city to either retain or refurbish its neighborhood commercial cores, which in turn have become the foundation of Portland’s human-scale walk- and bike-ability.
One of the many reasons we cherish old buildings is for just this; the human-scale relate-ability and comfortable surroundings they provide. Prime examples of this in Portland can be found in the city’s preserved movie theaters. Locally run, most without even the hint of a parking lot, Portland’s theaters not only connect and influence the culture of the city, but provide an extremely desirable amenity to a variety of neighborhoods. Here are just a few:
The Laurelhurst Theater, at 2735 E. Burnside, has been in nearly continuous operation since it opened in 1924. Home to first and late run movies, festivals, special events, and a smattering of local beers, it has been redone as a cinema-pub, replacing every other row of seats with a shelf for snacks and drinks. Its neon façade is a pretty spectacular addition to E. Burnside.
As for facades, the Hollywood Theatre, at 4122 NE Sandy, outshines all others with its blend of rococo and mission styles. The Hollywood was designed by local architect John Bennes, who was also behind the Liberty Theatre in Astoria, Oregon, as well as a plethora of hotels and office buildings currently on the National Register in downtown Portland. Built in 1926, it deteriorated into second-run theater until it was purchased by the Oregon Film and Video Foundation in 1997 and renovated as a venue for film festivals. Cinema 21, which opened at 616 NW 21st in 1925 as the State Theater, similarly contributes to the cultural fabric of the city by hosting film festivals as well as first run independent films not found at any other theaters.
St. Johns Cinema, at 8704 N. Lombard, though certainly less flashy than the Hollywood or Laurelhurst, is an important component of the small town atmosphere of Portland’s most geographically isolated neighborhood. Opening as the Venetian Theatre in 1926, the single screen theater was bisected horizontally in 1983, turning the balcony into its own oddly shaped screening room. As with many other local theaters in Portland, tickets are fairly cheap and local beer is provided.
The Moreland Theatre, at 6712 SE Milwaukie, is similar to the St. Johns Cinema in that it adds to the, again, “small town” feel of the West Moreland neighborhood’s commercial core. Built in 1926, and today a real mom and pop operation, this single screen theater is simple, relaxed, and features subtle yet sweet mission revival ornamentation on the inside.
Having lived in Portland for the past three years or so, I can still count my visits to the large cineplex in central Portland, Lloyd Cinema, on one hand. Situated behind a sea of cars, this modern movie theater provides no lobby to speak of and lacks any charm or sense of place. It is also certainly not the center of any unique cultural happenings in the city, be they the Portland International Film Festival at Cinema 21 or Bike Porn at the Clinton Street Theater. Nearly everyone I know feels the same way. This variety of small, local theaters provides what large chain theaters never can; uniqueness and charm. In addition to these more intangible qualities, Portland’s theaters fit well into resident’s desires to shop locally and, in some cases, never venture further than a comfortable bike ride from their home. Old theaters are also usually quite laid back and cozy; try getting that at a cineplex. The smallness of these theaters is one of their greatest assets. A city can sustain only so many giant mega-plexes, but small theaters allow for friendly competition (by my count, Portland currently has thirteen small local theaters, quite a few for a medium sized city).
Chris is a native New Orleanian working on his fourth year of living in beautiful Portland, Oregon after spending time in Austin, Houston, and Southern California. Currently pursuing a Masters in History, focusing on social and cultural shifts in post-Reconstruction New Orleans and Emancipation in the New World, he sees preserved buildings as crucial social and cultural ties to the past. He is also keenly interested in sustainability and the livability of cities, he works to bring both bikes and a love of cycling to underprivileged kids around Portland through the Bike Club program at the Community Cycling Center.