ASTORIA’S LIBERTY THEATRE

by Jackie Meredith 

LOCATION

Located in the heart of downtown Astoria on the corners of 12th and Commercial Streets, the theatre stands as an icon of dedicated preservation for historic treasures of the past as well as the visions of dreams-come-true.

 

MAIN CHARACTERS

http://img.hgtv.com/HGTV/2003/04/23/STP_liberty2_e.jpgDuring the 30’s, Astoria originally had three theatres (the Riviera, the Viking, and the Liberty). Both the Riviera and Viking struggled and were eventually purchased by Liberty interests. The Liberty became a part of a chain run by Claude S. Jensen & John Von Herberg. Early newspaper accounts note that Astoria “was lucky to have such successful/experienced developers build a theatre in the town.” The team of Jensen and Von Herberg was responsible for many of the finest theatre operations in the Northwest, including the extremely successful Liberty Theatre and Neptune Theatre in Seattle, Liberty Theatre in Portland, and the Olympic Theatre in Olympia. They were big proponents of the theatre organ as a way to promote business, and quite enthusiastic about Wurlitzer organs.

 

The theatre was designed by Portland architects Bennes & Herzog who designed a number of theatres in the Northwest.

 

THE DREAM UNFOLDS INTO REALITY

Originally, there were two locations for the Astoria Theatre. The first, a 500-seat theatre at 11th and Exchange Streets, was lost in Astoria’s great fire of 1922 (the fire devastated more than 30 blocks of downtown). To increase public morale through social and economic development, reconstruction of public buildings became a priority. In 1924, investors purchased land at 12th and Commercial streets (originally the site of the Weinhart Astoria Hotel). Their goal constituted construction of a theatre large enough to seat 1000 people, as well as provide space for several stores, offices, and restaurants.

 

The overall theme was what they called Romanesque, with light Italianate. There were other elements, such as the Hacienda style, tiled roof, Greek columns, and a Chinese paper and silk chandelier in the auditorium. The interior also features architectural fabrics of ornamental plaster, which is still intact, as well as elegant lighting fixtures. The principal interior designs were a series of Venetian-inspired paintings created by eclectic artist Joseph Knowles, prize-winner of a competition to provide master painting plans. Since Knowles had never been to Venice, this turned to be a very challenging task. Within six weeks, he presented 12 large canvases detailing Venetian waterways. Many of the local sailors recognized some of the views as the Columbia River with gondolas instead of their fishing boats.

 

The new Liberty Theatre became the gem of Astoria’s entertainment scene. At first patrons watched silent movies and vaudeville performers. They continued to come after movies became talkies, and vaudeville faded away. They packed the theatre in World War II to watch newsreels, and buy War Bonds sold by people like Jack Dempsey. In addition to movies and the businesses on the first floor, most of the boys and girls in Astoria learned to dance at a second floor studio.

 

By the 50’s, the building’s age called for changes. The original glass canopy was removed and replaced with a modern marquee with changeable letters. New projectors and a larger screen were installed.

 

In 1985, the theatre was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

In the early 90’s, the building desperately repairs, whereupon a group of civic leaders began to explore options for restoration.

 

LIBERTY THEATRE TODAY

Liberty Restoration, Inc., a private non-profit organization, purchased the theater in December 2000. LRI has raised about half of the $7.5 million cost of the restoration, including a $1.3 million City of Astoria urban renewal grant and a $399,000 federal Save America’s Treasures grant.

 

Restoration of the Chinese lantern-style chandelier made of paper and cotton, alone cost over $100,000.

The plan to restore the historic elegance of the theater, while equipping it to be a contemporary performing arts center, included a new electrical transformer and distribution network, new house lighting, repair and painting of the ceiling, and restoration of the Spanish tile roofing. The Knowles paintings also received a cleaning. New restrooms and seismic upgrades were also incorporated. A new glass canopy that closely resembles the original and a reproduction of the original vertical sign were installed. Retail businesses have also returned to the ground-level spaces.

 

The theatre celebrated its Grand Reopening in 2005.

 

Tours are available by appointment, and the theater is also open during events and open houses.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Liberty Theater
Steve Forrester
President, Liberty Restoration, Inc.
Phone: 503-325-3211
E-mail:
sforrester@dailyastorian.com
Website: www.liberty-theater.org

 

REFERENCE LISTINGS

Haunted Astoria by Jefferson Davis

<http://www.pstos.org/instruments/or/Astoria/Astoria.htm>

<http://www.hgtv.com/hgtv/remodeling/article/0,,HGTV_3659_1718483,00.html>

<http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4184/is_20041129/ai_n10047456>

John Goodenberger, historian

< http://www.pstos.org/history/jensen-vonherberg.htm>

 

DRIVING DIRECTIONS

Heading either west or east on Highway 30, proceed towards downtown. The theatre is located on the corner of 12th and Commercial Streets at 1203 Commercial Street. (Commercial in the downtown area is a one-way street heading east.)