Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Fairbanks Lacey Street Theater, grand building on a budget

Architectural historian Alison Hogland, author of “Buildings of Alaska,” writes that the Lacey Street Theater, “is the finest Art Deco building in Fairbanks.” The theater has graced the corner of Lacey Street and Second Avenue since Cap Lathrop built it in 1939.

The Lacey is a two-story concrete building with a small four-story stepped tower at the corner. The building has horizontal banding stretching the length of its facade, with incised geometrical designs between the windows. The design elements are repeated on the tower. My drawing shows the side entrance on Lacey Street, but the main entrance (with theater marquee) is on Second Avenue. There is also a door at the corner, but that entrance originally led to a bank occupying the corner space.

Benjamin Priteca, a leading architect in the Pacific Northwest, designed the Lacey. Priteca was one of the premier theater architects of his day and designed over 150 theaters. Some of the theaters he designed include the Coliseum in Seattle, the Pantages in downtown Los Angeles and the Orpheum in San Francisco.

Austin E. “Cap” Lathrop hired Priteca to design the Lacey Street Theater and the Fourth Avenue Theater in Anchorage. Priteca lived in Seattle where Lathrop had connections, but Lathrop might have been more influenced in selecting Priteca because of Alexander Pantages, the vaudeville and theater mogul. Pantages had numerous theaters across the United States and Canada, and Priteca was Pantages’ favorite architect.

Lathrop was an Alaska industrialist and entrepreneur. He began his Alaska ventures in 1895 when he and several partners bought a small two-masted auxiliary sailboat (a boat rigged as a sailboat but also having an inboard engine) and sailed it into Alaska waters just in time to take advantage of the lucrative Klondike gold rush. He went on to invest in coal mines, banks, radio stations and other commercial enterprises, including a string of theaters in Cordova, Valdez, Anchorage and Fairbanks.

In addition to the Lacey Street Theater, he also constructed the Empress Theater just down the street. In 1924 Cap produced the first motion picture filmed entirely in Alaska, “The Cheechakos.”

The Lacey operated as a movie theater for over 40 years, but it finally closed its doors in 1983. The building sat vacant for several years but was purchased in 1992 by Dick and Hoa Brickley. They reopened it as the Fairbanks Ice Museum, which is still in business.

Pantages supposedly liked Priteca because the architect could create the appearance of opulence without spending exorbitantly. Pantages is supposed to have said, “Any fool can make a place look like a million dollars by spending a million dollars, but it’s not everybody who can do the same thing with half a million.” I don’t know how much Lathrop spent to build the Lacey, but it certainly looks like a million-dollar building to me.

For more history about Cap Lathrop check out these posts:

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