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Cothran 

Wednesday, Sep 16 1998
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Mission Theatrical
I'm a sucker for anachronisms. That's why I always linger as I pass outside the old theaters on Mission Street.

You know the ones. Five grand houses that have fallen on hard times, some shuttered, others chipped and desecrated with cheap paint jobs and filled with ugly, prefab furniture offered at sale prices. Single-screen facilities, they are economically obsolete in this age of multiplexes. None is currently used to screen films or host plays.

Still, they could easily be given new life. As nightclubs, dance clubs (think salsa nights; think swing kids), or performing arts centers. Properly renovated, the theaters would go a long way toward bringing back some of the old glory to Mission Street. They might even remind the city of the time when the thoroughfare was a main commercial and entertainment district, when a mayor named Sunny Jim came down to celebrate Roaring '20s film premieres.

Sadly, events are moving in the opposite direction.
The most historically and architecturally significant of the old dames, the New Mission Theater at 2550 Mission St., is slated for demolition to pave the way for the construction of a new Mission campus for City College. Plans for the new campus show a shapeless, soulless, concrete block of a building. What it would replace is a priceless treasure.

Built in 1907 by locally renowned neoclassical architects Merritt and John Reid, the theater went through a major renovation in 1932, when the facade and most of the interior was totally redone by famed art deco designer and architect Timothy L. Pflueger.

For the uninitiated: Pflueger is the man who designed the stunning Paramount Theater in Oakland, which is now a national landmark; he was responsible for the Italianate splendor of the Castro Theater, the Pacific Stock Exchange, and my personal favorite, the Pacific Bell building at 140 New Montgomery St., the gray tower east of the Museum of Modern Art. (Just looking at the latter art deco masterpiece makes me want to have a martini and call women "dames." Obviously, my fondness for anachronisms runs deep.)

Just because I like old things doesn't mean I'm a knee-jerk preservationist. A new City College campus in the Mission is a fine idea. It's just that college officials had seven other sites to choose from -- most of which, according to the environmental report on the new campus, seem workable. And none of the other sites involves obliterating what could become one of San Francisco's cultural trademarks.

At the very least, in their rush to pick the theater site, college officials ignored or misrepresented the historic value of the theater. I understand why this may be. From a purely pragmatic perspective, building a new campus where the theater is located -- on Mission Street, in a central location, almost smack on top of a BART stop -- might seem an enticing prospect.

But from a preservationist or economic development point of view -- actually, from any point of view that respects the cultural legacy of the neighborhood -- the proposal to raze the theater can only be seen as a ridiculous waste.

After spending $2 million to acquire the theater and an adjacent building, the college district has no money to spend on a new campus. Officials are counting on voters to pass a November bond measure that would gin up more cash to pay for demolition of the theater and construction of the campus. Even if the voters acquiesce, it will be at least five years before ground is broken on the new campus.

So there's no hurry. There's plenty of time to work a deal that saves the New Mission Theater and gives City College the new campus it deserves.

The suspects who are usually so vocal about protecting the integrity of the Mission District have been largely silent on the planned demolition of the New Mission Theater. This seems strange; just five years ago, a group of Mission residents went to great lengths to ask that the area be declared a theater preservation district. (The city, unwisely, turned them down.)

One neighborhood powerhouse, Raquel Medina, wife of Supervisor Jose Medina and executive director of the Mission Economic Development Association, says she loves the theater and wants to see it saved. "I used to go there as a kid," she says.

But, she contends, it's too late. Attempts by her organization to attract the three big theater companies -- United Artists, AMC, and Landmark Theaters -- failed for one reason or another, she says. (Although, she notes, all three companies agreed that the Mission could easily support a modern theater.) And now that City College owns the property, she can't see how it's possible to turn the situation around.

There are other reasons for the silence of prominent Mission pols. Generally, Hispanic leaders don't want to be seen as blocking educational opportunity for moderate- to low-income students. More specifically, those leaders have no special reason to go head to head with the dean of the City College Mission campus, Carlota del Portillo, a powerful Latina pol from the Mission and an elected member of the San Francisco school board.

So the fight to save the New Mission Theater has been left to two well-meaning and inexperienced unknowns: Chris Ver Plank, a 29-year-old architectural expert for the preservationist group San Francisco Heritage; and Debbie Cort, the thirtysomething daughter of local real estate biggie Robert Cort, who has over the past 20 years developed at least 10 commercial properties.

Ver Plank is preparing an application to the state and federal governments to have the theater named to the national registry of historic places. If he is successful, City College won't be able to touch the building without going through a lengthy approval process at both the state and federal levels.

Cort, who this year acquired the old Rialto Theater, which is just across the street from the New Mission, is suing City College, challenging the college's environmental impact report as incomplete and incorrect in its analysis of the architectural significance of the theater.

Her goal is to save both the Rialto and the New Mission, but her quest is, admittedly, late off the mark. City College already owns the New Mission Theater, and persuading district officials to let go of their fondest dream -- a campus on Mission Street -- will be a hard sell, especially if no establishment pols can be brought on board.

There is a simple reason that the move to save the New Mission is behind the political curve. Ver Plank did not know about the sale of the theater until Cort called him up a few weeks ago. He suspects that the college district purposefully did not inform San Francisco Heritage of the impending purchase because of the group's brief involvement in a move to stop the district's demolition of a lesser building in North Beach. (The move ultimately failed.) Although San Francisco Heritage usually receives draft environmental impact reports from government agencies -- including the college district -- that are seeking to demolish buildings, the heritage group was not given the opportunity to comment on the New Mission Theater proposal during public hearings. Once those hearings closed, the college district concluded that the building's architectural treasures -- the Pflueger touches -- had been spoiled over time, and could not be brought back to life.

Ever since he learned about the impending destruction of the theater, Ver Plank has been scrambling to disprove that conclusion.

The college based its opinion on a 1993 report from the city Landmarks Board that states, "The original theater has been altered to the point of insignificance. It no longer exists." The report goes on to say that the interior of the New Mission has been "obliterated."

But those assertions, Ver Plank says, are just not true.
As part of his research on the New Mission Theater, Ver Plank went to Glen Ellen in Sonoma County, where he was allowed to rummage through the files of John Pflueger, nephew of the late great art deco master Timothy Pflueger. To everyone's surprise -- even the nephew's -- Ver Plank found the original drawings of the 1932 renovation Pflueger performed on the facade and lobby of the New Mission.

Most if not all of the Pflueger elements are still there, Ver Plank says, and in good shape.

At Ver Plank's request, John Pflueger has written to college district board members, informing them that he feels the New Mission Theater is a significant example of his late uncle's work. But it doesn't take a letter from Pflueger to make this point.

Just walk into the huge theater (currently Evermax Furniture) and you'll see, in the slender lobby, its stairway, and in the spacious auditorium and balcony in back, the beautiful art deco touches, the vast majority of them still intact: intricate chandelier frames on the ceilings; the rack of mirrors in the lobby, framed in hard-angled borders with seashell swirl designs; one of the double doors leading back to the auditorium with frosted glass, deco designs etched into it. And once back in the huge auditorium area, the true splendor emerges. Corinthian columns and cornices seem to be everywhere. The stage, for example, is framed in grand golden Corinthian columns and side panels, with vases surrounded by filigree and topped with perfectly preserved, golden, bas-relief, trumpet-playing nymphs on horses.

If Ver Plank's interest in the New Mission Theater is purely preservationist, Cort is more entrepreneurially driven. She isn't doing the neighborhood NIMBY mau mau; she wants to make a deal.

Cort says she will help City College sell the theater to investors and find another site for a new campus. And, she says, she has the investors ready at hand: a national performing arts company whose representatives have toured the theater and expressed interest in renovating and occupying it. Cort would say no more about the deal, because the group's interest, while encouraging, is not certain.

But, she insists in her perky, entrepreneurial way, "They are big, big, big."

Imagine the deal: The Mission gets a renovated historic institution that provides an economic and aesthetic boost to an area in dire need of same. And City College makes a profit on the sale of the theater, so it can build an even better new campus.

Of course, for this to happen, the college district would have to start working with, rather than fighting, Ver Plank and Cort. But that doesn't seem all that unlikely. Cort talks the type of economic development-speak that has been so common among Mission politicos in recent years. She can even say "win-win" without cracking a sardonic smile.

Dear God, can it be possible that I am courting hope for a vital Mission District? How anachronistic.

George Cothran (gcothran@sfweekly.com) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,

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George Cothran

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