It was 1998 and L.A. film lovers were distraught about a proposal by Pacific Theatres to gut the Hollywood Cinerama Dome, surrounding it with a complex of restaurants and a movie multiplex that would become ArcLight Cinemas.
The proposed $60-million development, critics said, would obscure the view of the 1963 design by midcentury icon Welton Becket and Associates as the world’s first all-concrete geodesic dome. The Cinerama lobby was to be replaced with a restaurant, and stadium seating would do away with the venue’s legendary epic screen.
The public outcry was fierce. The Los Angeles Conservancy rallied behind its preservation, and a grass-roots organization called Friends of the Cinerama Dome launched. Jackie Goldberg emerged as an advocate on the City Council, and by that December, Pacific Theatres agreed to keep the beloved theater much as it was — and still is.
What goes around, comes around: On Monday, Pacific and ArcLight theaters announced that they would not reopen, and film lovers took to Twitter to express fear that their beloved Cinerama Dome was in imminent danger. Could the structure be vulnerable to demolition? Could some craven developer turn it into an upscale steakhouse?
The short answers: probably not, and probably not.
In 1998 the Cinerama Dome was designated L.A. Historic-Cultural Monument No. 659. This protects the building — to a point, said Linda Dishman, president and chief executive of the L.A. Conservancy, and Ken Bernstein, principal city planner and manager of the city’s Office of Historic Resources.
“Even if a developer emerged in the wings today and had plans to demolish and redevelop the site, there would be extensive public process, and many opportunities for the public to weigh in on the preservation and use of the Cinerama Dome,” Bernstein said.
Any request for a permit to demolish the Cinerama Dome would go through the city, Bernstein said, and his department would direct the owner to begin an environmental impact report. The EIR process, which can take up to a year, is designed to examine what would be damaged by demolition, and it would explore alternatives to that damage.
The historic-cultural monument status also means that the City Council and L.A.’s Cultural Heritage Commission can delay a demolition permit for up to one year, Dishman said.
After the EIR is completed, the City Council would decide how significant the impact would be and could deny demolition. The Cultural Heritage Commission ordinance that would be used to navigate this process does not give the City Council the ability to deny demolition based on the historic significance of the building, nor would it ensure that the Cinerama Dome would have to continue operating as a movie theater.
The ordinance does, however, give the city power to review planned alterations to the building’s interior and exterior. Alterations — for the dome to operate as a massive restaurant, for example — would have to meet federal guidelines called the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, which Dishman described as the Ten Commandments of alteration.
She said conversion to a restaurant would be tough because it is very difficult to vent a geodesic dome. The building was built with about 300 pentagonal and hexagonal panels, each weighing as much as 3,200 pounds and structurally reliant on one another, so you can’t just pull a few out. This challenge is what laid to waste the 1998 plan for a restaurant in the lobby.
“This feels so much like 1998 because there was this huge outcry when they talked about making changes and taking away the lobby,” said Dishman, adding that fans and architecture buffs should do what people did back then. “I think the thing for people to do now is to really implore Pacific Theatres to make sure this building continues to have a future as a movie theater.”
Pacific built the dome following a patented Buckminster Fuller technique for bolting together the panels. After Cinerama Dome opened, other domed theaters were erected in places such as Orange, Anaheim, Pleasant Hill and San Jose.
All the other domes have been demolished except for San Jose’s Century 21 dome, which was declared a city landmark and is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. It stands in the shadow of a glossy new Silicon Valley office complex.