So Long, Seven Gables

Note: unless otherwise stated, all photos for this post were taken by the same person, who wishes to remain anonymous.

One of the oldest movie theaters in Seattle is no more.

The smoke, as seen from I-5

The Seven Gables Theatre began life as an American Legion dance hall in 1925, designed by Swedish-born architect Eric Carl Rising (1892-1987). In 1968, Randy Finley bought the Movie House (currently the Grand Illusion Cinema), which he and his partners converted from a dentist’s office and opened in 1970. This led to him eventually buying 15 more theaters, including the Seven Gables Theatre in 1974, which opened on December 10, 1976. These theaters (minus the Movie House) eventually became part of the Seven Gables Corp.

After successfully suing large movie chains for preventing him from showing the movies he wanted — a process that took eight years — he walked away from the movie biz; Landmark Theaters acquired the chain in 1989. Sadly, out of all the theaters that existed when I moved to Seattle, only the Crest still operates as a Landmark theater (at least until COVID closed all the theaters in our state).

Taking down the sign

The first to go was the Neptune, bought out by STG in 2011. Then the Metro, initially turned into Sundance Cinemas in 2012 and then acquired by AMC (who kept the interior and the 21+ rules the same but changed the menus). Next to go was the Egyptian Theatre in 2013, which SIFF reopened in time for the 40th Seattle International Film Festival in 2014 and ran as its second year-round cinema (third if you count the Film Center, though that theater is more of a weekend venue). The Varsity’s future was up-in-the-air for years, until Far Away Entertainment purchased it in 2015 (they also run the Admiral in West Seattle). Then we lost the Harvard Exit in 2015 (see my post about it here), currently a Mexican Embassy. Last to go were the Guild 45th and the Seven Gables.

And now the Seven Gables has no hope of being resurrected as a movie house. On Christmas Eve, as if to cap off a particularly awful 2020, it caught fire and burned to the ground. Whatever wasn’t burned down came down on January 21, minus this single staircase, which led from the street to the front doors.

Unlike with the Egyptian or the Harvard Exit, I don’t remember my first or last movies there (in the case of the former, I’m referring to when it was a Landmark Theatre, though I also remember my last movie there before quarantine: The Colour Out of Space). When I lived in the U-District, the Seven Gables was the closest theater to my apartment, and one of the few with (limited) free parking (the parking lot held maybe four cars). I saw many movies there over the years, from a preview screening of Jane Eyre (where I kept shushing the two chatty teenage girls in front of me) to the night I caught one of those one-week engagements that ending up being the best film I saw that year.

The lobby was mainly a glorified hallway with the box office on the left, and if you had to use the restroom, you had to go down two flights of narrow stairs (the women’s bathroom was on a different floor) whose only purpose was to lead to the bathrooms. Straight ahead was concessions, with the theater to the right, past curtains that were drawn once the feature began. Like the Grand Illusion, staff members occasionally gave a quick introduction before the movie. A painted mural opened to reveal the screen underneath (the chandelier was raised and turned off at the same time). And while its main lobby was tiny and cramped, there was a large room off to the left reminiscent of the Harvard Exit’s beautiful lobby (and bigger).

Photo by Jack Coursey. Used under a Creative Commons (Attribution) License

And it wasn’t just the theater that went up in flames. Below it used to be an Italian restaurant, which changed hands a few times, and two empty spaces. One space was empty most of the time I’ve lived here, but the other space used to be Cinema Books, which went out of business several years ago when construction lowered foot traffic to unmanageable levels.

I don’t know what the plans are for the space. Property is valuable in Seattle, so Landmark might end up selling the land. I felt so hopeful when the Cohen Media Group bought the chain a few years ago. I hoped it’d lead to the reopening of both theaters. Sadly, the lights have gone out permanently on the Seven Gables.