Despite the broken windows and graffiti, the old Golden Gate Theatre in East Los Angeles still maintains its majestic aura. An architectural landmark and social hub before it was vacated in the late 1980s, the 12,000-square-foot structure at the intersection of Atlantic and Whittier boulevards may be staging a comeback.
Escrow closed recently on sale of the property to the Charles Co. of Beverly Hills. The company won’t comment on reports that a chain drugstore will occupy the site, but it confirmed that an environmental impact report is in the works. “We’re in negotiations so everything is preliminary,” says Sarah Magana-Withers, director of projects for the firm. “We plan to keep the structure. The building is absolutely gorgeous. We want to maintain that but we also want to find what’s going to work. We’re looking forward to rejuvenating it.”
But preservationists fear that the EIR is a red flag. “That means they’re going to gut or significantly alter the building,” says Ken Bernstein, diretor of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy. “If they preserve more of the interior, they could do a less intensive EIR. We would hope that the tenant would leave visible the significant architectural elements of the interior and exterior.”
Bernstein worries that the Golden Gate’s soaring interior and proscenium arch will be replaced with a dropped ceiling. “It may not fit the cookie-cutter approach for a national chain in the once-great shell of a theater,” he says, adding that the conservancy hopes to work with the developer and County Supervisor Gloria Molina on the project.
Built in 1927, the 1,400-plus-seat theater has survived demolition attempts in years past by previous owners, who also tried to remove it from the National Register of Historic Places, according to Bernstein. “It’s the most significant theater and movie palace for East L.A.,” he says. “It’s a great example of the ornate Spanish churrigueresque style.” Erected by developer Peter Snyder, the theater was designed by architects William and Clifford Balch, creators of the El Rey Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard and the Fox theater in Pomona.
The Golden Gate was originally in the courtyard of the Vega Building, a 1920s shopping complex that wrapped around the theater. Damaged by fire as well as the Whittier earthquake, the Vega was demolished in 1992, Bernstein says. The theater’s interior is in disrepair but contains a lobby, a clamshell-shaped concession stand and a mezzanine.
Miguel Santana, a spokesman for Molina, says the building will be restored. “They’re going to use the structure as part of the store. There’s a deficit of those kinds of service and we’re delighted that they’d be coming into the neighborhood.” Santana says that as one of few historical structures left in East Los Angeles, the theater could play a key role in a planned renaissance for the locale. A new East L.A. Civic Center is being developed for the area, he says, along with a Gold Line rail extension planned for 2009 from downtown through Little Tokyo and under Boyle Heights to where 3rd Street meets Beverly and Atlantic boulevards.
But the Eastside also needs activities to keep youths out of gangs, says Yvonne Montoya, founder of the East Los Angeles Center for the Performing Arts, formed in 2001. Montoya spent her teen years at the Golden Gate until the movies stopped in 1986. “It’s an amazing theater,” she says. “We were trying to get support to renovate and turn it into a performing arts venue. There’s a drugstore on every corner here. I’d love to see the developer team up with us to preserve it.”