Friday, November 19, 2021

Good News at Hollywood Theatre


Artist's rendering (Scott Baumberger)

 After a COVID-19-related delay for 15 months, officials restoring the Hollywood Theatre in Northeast Portland are getting ready – again – to start restoration of the pedestrian-level façade.

 Workers are slowly peeling away fabric installed in 1965 under the big marquee when most of the original terra cotta details and original ornaments were either scraped off or covered over, presumably to give the erstwhile movie palace a more modern look.

 When it opened in 1926, the glorious and intricately-decorated tall big façade on Sandy Boulevard made such a big impression that the neighborhood for blocks around came to be known as the Hollywood District, a name that it still bears today.

 The pandemic-related delay to the $150,000 lower façade project proved to have some benefit, as it allowed time to find some original details that were thought to be lost.  Three bas reliefs in arches over the entry doors were thought to have been destroyed, but were merely covered up.  Likewise, a patch of original terrazzo tiles hidden by the earlier remodel will allow for new tiles to be ordered with the right colors.

Yet another surprise was found in what architect Paul Falsetto called the large barrel arch on the façade that is partially covered by the Hollywood marquee.  Colorful terra cotta decorations thought to have been lost in the arch turned out to be largely intact when subsequent screening was removed.

Historic view (Hollywood Theatre)

"I'm related elated about these discoveries," said Virginia Durost, the Hollywood facilities director.  “We’ve gotten to see what was under there before we start.” She said the original building was “designed as one cohesive whole,” but was "cut off at the knees" by subsequent remodels at the ground level.  The new project will not be an exact replica of the original, but it will be close enough to make the building stand as a unified architectural statement.  “The whole design will come down to the ground,” Durost said. 

An element that will not be replaced is the freestanding octagonal ticket booth that originally stood close to the Sandy Boulevard sidewalk.  However, its shape and location will be recognized on the ground in the entryway.

In a Zoom meeting, Falsetto said the lower façade improvements will restore the original symmetry, although not all of the detailing will be identical.  Stacks of what look like blocks, called quoins in architectural lingo, will define the east and west edges of the lower façade, and lighted poster cases will be set off against sleek porcelain bricks.

 The firm of John Virginius Bennes and Harry Herzog did the original design.  The two men were partners for nine years, during which they designed two other theaters that no longer exist.  Bennes is best known for several buildings he designed on the campus of Oregon State University that are included in a national historic district; Herzog also worked on Temple Beth Israel, another of the city’s most notable structures. 

The glitzy façade of the Hollywood Theatre is one of the best-known in Portland.  Falsetto said the  main entrance was angled along Sandy Boulevard – a street  that cuts through Northeast Portland on a diagonal -- so that it is especially visible to traffic heading east on Sandy, another reason for the building’s prominence.

 The non-profit Hollywood Theatre organization is now in its 11th year of gradually restoring the previously much-abused landmark.  By early next spring, if construction estimates are accurate, the exterior of the grand dame of Northeast Portland should be proud and shining again for many years to come.

Besides its devotion to showing new and old movies, the nonprofit deserves high regard for its careful persistence in restoring a magnificent architectural treasure.  

 -----Fred Leeson

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  1. John V. Bennes is also notable for introducing the Prairie School design of houses to Portland. Before he left Chicago to come to Oregon he was in an architectural partnership whose principals were members of the Chicago Architecture Club, a group founded by Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, two of Chicago's greatest architects. In those years, the Bennes firm designed a large Prairie School styled apartment building in Chicago, now on that city's historic register.

    Bennes designed numerous Prairie School inspired homes in Portland, including his own home.

    1. To the extent that I have seen them, his buildings at OSU are all in the "traditional" mold, rather than modern. Clearly, that was the prevailing mood for campus architecture at the time, and the general "style" may not have been his decision to make.

  2. Hopefully working on this project. It's going to be great.

  3. Hey Fred, I think you missed one of the Bennes/Herzog theaters that 'no longer exist'. The Liberty Theater (1924) in Astoria designed by Bennes/Herzog is very much intact and the crown jewel of downtown Astoria.

  4. Eric, very interesting. There was a Liberty Theater in Portland...perhaps the company hired the same firm to do both. I have seen the Liberty in Astoria but never been in it. It looks wonderful, indeed.