Saturday, April 5, 2014

Empress Theater brought several firsts to Fairbanks




Empress Theater as it looked in 2005, when the second floor still had one of its original multi-pane windows
Austin “Cap” Lathrop never cut corners. He felt that doing a job right the first time saved money in the long run, and when it came to constructing buildings he believed in substance—the more substance the better. So when Alaska builders started using reinforced concrete for construction projects, he began using it, too.

Lathrop owned a chain of Empress Theaters: in Cordova, Valdez, Seward and Anchorage. In 1916 he successfully constructed his Anchorage theater using reinforced concrete, so when Cap decided to build a theater in Fairbanks a decade later it was only natural to try it here.

Concrete had already been used in Fairbanks to form building blocks. (The Fairbanks Exploration Company office building is constructed of locally manufactured concrete blocks.) However, no one locally had ever built with solid concrete. Many people thought that concrete foundations would buckle when subjected to frost heaves, or that concrete would simply crumble in the region's frigid winter temperatures.

Lathrop was undeterred. He did change the building’s design before construction began though. According to Elizabeth Tower’s book, Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire, Lathrop originally planned to erect a four-story structure, with the top two stories envisioned as a hotel. By the time construction began in April of 1927 the plans had been scaled back to just the two-story theater.  Construction was finished that summer.

Tower’s book also relates that even after construction was finished, some people were dubious about the building’s durability. Federal inspectors checked the building annually for several years. Finally satisfied, in 1932 the federal government built its new Fairbanks federal building with reinforced concrete.

The Empress Theater's grand opening was August 25, 1927. A Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article written the next day stated that over 1300 people attended the gala. The theater had two performance in its 670-seat auditorium that evening, and each performance was sold out.

One of the Empress’s attractions was its 2/7 Kimball organ, the first pipe organ in Interior Alaska. The Kimball had two “manuals” (keyboards), and seven ranks (groupings) of pipes. All told the organ had about 500 pipes. Just for comparison, the concert organ at the Davis Concert Hall has about 2,000 pipes. Of course, being a theater organ, the Empress's Kimball also had percussion attachments such as drums, cymbals and glockenspiel.

As originally built, the Empress had a balanced front facade. The first floor (which has changed considerably) had recessed double doors on either side of a large expanse of plate-glass window. The second floor looked much the same as it does now, with four equally spaced windows—the two inmost windows with decorative arches.  Above were two small circular vents, and a cornice with denticulated (tooth-like) ornamentation.

The theater was remodeled in the 1950s, with major exterior changes to the front facade. The entrance on the right side of the building was converted into a small rental retail space. The central window area was reduced, and the entrance on the left was expanded. A marquee over the entrance was added and 50s-style neon signs were installed on top of the marquee.

In 1961 the Empress closed down and was assimilated into the Co-op Drug Store, another Fairbanks institution. The neon signs were removed, the first floor front façade changed to its present configuration, and the auditorium, which spanned two stories, was torn out and converted into two levels of retail space and offices.

The theater's organ was removed and eventually found a home in the Steak and Pipes restaurant adjacent to the Big I Pub. When that restaurant closed down the organ was put into storage and currently sits at of another of Cap Lathrop's theaters—the Lacey, now the Fairbanks Ice Museum.

After Co-op Drugs closed, the building became part of the Co-op Plaza. The Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre used the second floor of the Empress Building as a performance space for several years, but recently moved out. Too bad, it was nice to have the building come full circle back to a performance venue.

For more history about Cap Lathrop check out these posts:

Sources: 

  • Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire, Life and Times of Cap Lathrop. Elizabeth Tower. Publication Consultants. 2006
  • Buildings of Alaska. Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
  • Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbagnks. 1985
  • Northwest Theatre Organ History. Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society website. 1998-2014
  • “Return of the Empress.” Jeff Richardson. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. January 1, 2007
  • “Thirteen hundred witness opening of new Empress.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. August 26, 1927

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