On September 25, 1991, last-second negotiations to save the Music Hall Theatre from demolition officially come up short. The announcement dooms the once-proud theater, the last of the pre-Depression movie houses to open in Seattle. It also brought to a close one of the longest and most bitter struggles between local developers and historical preservation groups.
A (Temporary) Seattle Landmark
Spanish baroque in design, the Music Hall Theatre originally opened as the Fox in April 1929, the last of the major downtown movie theaters completed before the October stock market crash. Unfortunately, the timing of the venue's opening, not to mention its location at 7th and Olive (just outside of the traditional theater district), conspired to keep the house from enjoying prosperity.
After a succession of management and ownership changes in the early 1930s, the theater was purchased by the Clise family in 1936 and renamed the 7th Avenue. Over the next few decades, the Clises maintained ownership through several ups and downs in the local economy, including a number of periods in which the building was dark altogether. By the 1970s the prospects for the theater had become very bleak, however, with competition from suburban multiplexes driving many of Seattle's older downtown theaters to extinction.
In 1974, the City of Seattle, in response to the loss of several other historic theaters, proposed landmark status for the 7th Avenue (renamed the Music Hall in the late 1960s). The Clise family fought the proposal, fearing it would limit their future options for the site. Even so, the Music Hall gained landmark status in 1977.
Unfortunately, by 1983 it had become clear that the property could no longer be profitable as a theater. Accordingly, the Clise family -- led by Al Clise -- asked the Seattle Landmarks Board to revoke the Music Hall's historical designation so that they could find an alternative use for the site. When the Board refused, the Clise family appealed to a local hearing examiner, who ruled in their favor.
The Music Hall thus went up for sale, but there weren't many takers for a large, single-screen theater at the time, and the venue remained closed for much of the mid- and late-1980s. The death knell came in 1989, when a proposal to permanently relocate the Seattle Symphony to the Music Hall was rejected by the Symphony, which favored construction of a new facility. (The Symphony would relocate to the newly built Benaroya Hall in 1998.)
Economics vs. the Public Good
With the symphony's decision, the Clise family determined that redevelopment was its only option, and that the stately old Music Hall would have to be demolished. It was not a popular decision, and their efforts to secure a demolition permit were met with vigorous criticism from within the community. "[W]e are still much too hasty in rejecting useful, even brilliant contributions from the past," argued Marc and Kim Silver in a 1989 Seattle Times guest editorial. "... In our adolescent enthusiasm to change, change, change, Seattle tends to forget that some things are really worth keeping -- and the Music Hall is one of them" ("Last Call for the Music Hall?").
Al Clise responded to the criticism with his own editorial the following month, tracing the Music Hall's financial troubles all the way back to the late 1940s. The family explored a variety of options for the property, he contended, although nothing was feasible in terms of saving the existing building, either in part or in whole. Instead, they proposed a 16-story, 240-room hotel for the site. Financing for the project hung on the Clise family's ability to secure a demolition permit for the Music Hall.
"Since the Landmarks process began in 1974, we have lost thousands of dollars," Clise argued. "This does not include depreciation and other types of 'paper' losses: these are real dollars we have spent. In the last five years alone, our losses have exceeded $400,000. Even when it is not in use, the theater costs us between $75,000 and $100,000 per year in taxes, insurance, security, maintenance, overhead, etc. ... While we are sympathetic with the desire of many people to preserve the Music Hall, we feel we have already made a much greater contribution than should be required of any property owner" (Clise).
Marching Off to War
The redevelopment decision was a call to arms for the local arts community -- in particular Allied Arts, which quickly organized a coalition of public and private groups in an effort to save the theater.
In a three-pronged attack, Allied Arts spearheaded a successful effort to redesignate the Music Hall as a Seattle landmark in 1990. (Due to changes in Seattle's historical preservation guidelines since 1977, it was deemed advisable for the Landmarks Board to revisit the issue.) They also challenged the city's environmental impact statement with respect to the proposed demolition, and took to lobbying the city council for the creation of a transfer of development rights program allowing developers to "trade" historically significant buildings for an expedited building process elsewhere in the city.
As had been the case seven years earlier, the Clise family appealed the Landmark Board's decision to a local hearings examiner, and again received a favorable decision. In April 1991, Merideth Getches ruled that that the act of preservation should not deny a property owner the right to derive a reasonable profit from his or her holdings. In the case of the Music Hall Theatre, Getches felt that there was clearly no way for the Clise family to preserve the venue and make money.
Although Allied Arts planned an appeal of the ruling, the writing was on the wall for the Music Hall Theatre. In July 1991, after the Seattle City Council affirmed his right to demolish the theater without conditions, Al Clise announced that the dismantling process would begin on September 2, 1991. (Substantial portions of the interior and exterior would need to be cleared away before formal demolition could begin.) Clise would not rule out the possibility that the building could still be saved, but he was rather blunt in stating that only a "big check" could stop the process. "We are not interested in compromises," he told a reporter from the Post-Intelligencer. "At this stage, we either have to sell the property to somebody ... or we have to pursue our hotel development" ("Looks Like Curtains").
11th Hour Negotiations
Preservationist groups managed to buy some time from the Clise family, however, in an effort to negotiate a possible deal. Even so, efforts to strip the building moved forward as planned. In early September 1991 many of the Music Hall's interior pieces were auctioned off, with a group of investors from the neighboring Paramount Theatre bidding $125,000 for items deemed "essential" to save. This was the same group that was, at the time, negotiating for a possible purchase of the Music Hall, lock, stock and barrel.
With negotiations moving at a fast and furious pace, the Clise family agreed to delay the start of demolition until September 20th. Reports indicated that the Paramount group needed to come up with at least $100,000 in earnest money to stop the demolition, and that the total asking price for the Music Hall would be $8 million. The remaining $7.9 million would then be raised through a variety of public and private efforts.
Unfortunately, no deal could be reached, and on September 25, 1991, Al Clise announced that formal demolition would begin shortly." We are very distressed by this," he told the Post-Intelligencer at the time. "We don't like to be in the position to tear down historical landmarks ... Everyone wants [the Music Hall spared], but nobody wants to pay for it" ("Time Runs Out").
Clise also used the occasion to voice his bitterness over the actions of the Seattle Landmarks Board and Allied Arts, claiming that they had conspired to delay the process so long (and cost his family an estimated $2 million in legal fees) that he was no longer feeling very benevolent about saving the structure. "Had we not been pressed into years of litigation to defend our property rights we'd be more agreeable to negotiate further time lines," Clise remarked ("'It's Over'"). (The Clise family would later file a lawsuit against the city in an effort to recoup their losses.)
And the Walls Came Down
With Al Clise's announcement, the fate of Seattle's Music Hall Theatre was sealed. Workers began removing parts of the interior and some of the exterior stonework in October 1991, a gutting process that took several months to complete. By January, the wrecking ball was swinging, with McFarland Wrecking Co. beginning demolition in earnest on the October 17. Ironically, the public battle to save the Music Hall Theatre made it a much more popular venue in its demise than it often had been while operating. The corner of 7th and Olive became a destination point for many, some of whom brought video cameras to document the final hours of the once-majestic theater.
It took several years to put a formal deal together, but the Clise family -- through their company, Clise Properties -- eventually built a 24-story office building on the old Music Hall site. Opened in July 2001, the building was constructed in partnership with Nordstrom, the department store's employees accounting for nearly 80 percent of the building's tenants.