They may not be officially designated historic landmarks, but the Century Dome theaters are already a tourist attraction.
On a recent Tuesday morning, visitors from Anaheim were taking pictures in front of the iconic theater complex that has been a Winchester Boulevard landmark since 1964. The family was visiting the Winchester Mystery House. “When I saw that dome, I knew exactly what it was,” said the father, who said he has fond memories of seeing “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” at a Cinerama dome in Southern California.
The future of the oldest of the four domes, Century 21, may be decided next week, when the California State Historic Resources Commission (SHRC) meets to consider new nominations for California’s Register of Historical Resources. San Jose’s Preservation Action Council petitioned the state to give the dome theater landmark status.
In March, the San Jose Council and Mayor Chuck Reed – in an about-face – wrote to the agency, asking that it be considered for historic preservation. At the April 22 meeting, the SHRC will consider Century 21’s nomination and make a recommendation to the National Park Service, which ultimately decides what goes on the national register of historic places.
The property owners want to tear down the theaters and redevelop the land into a high density “urban village.” Although the San Jose City Council hasn’t approved any plan, Santana Row owner Federal Realty has already signed a ground lease with the owners. Since the plan was announced, there has been a growing protest from preservationists and dome fans, and an online petition with nearly 8,000 signatures.
The San Jose Council has also taken steps to nominate Century 21 as a city historic landmark. The city’s Historic Landmarks Commission nominated the theater for historic status at its January meeting, but that’s in limbo apparently because no one has stepped up with the necessary research and fees.
The Winchester dome theaters were the first of their kind and were designed for a then-new widescreen technology, Cinerama. Designed by Bay Area architect Vincent G. Raney – a relative of the property owners – the Century 21 Theater “embodies the distinctive characteristics of the mid-century modernist style and suburban roadside architecture popular during the 1960s,” says the application to the SHRC. “This modernist landmark in San Jose is one of the best surviving examples of the freestanding dome type theater remaining in California.”
If the dome escapes the wrecking ball, there’s a company that’s ready to move in and continue its historic use as a theater: Guggenheim Entertainment, which operated the Retro Dome at Westgate until they lost their lease in 2012 and that structure was demolished.
The family-owned company was highly successful with its mix of retro movies, live stage shows, and educational theater programs. GE offered a retro movie series until the end of March at the Century 21, and are ready to re-start operations at a moment’s notice, says GE principal Scott Guggenheim. The theater would also provide another community performing venue – something that is much needed in the area.
SHRC’s April 22 meeting begins at 9 a.m. at the Asilomar Conference Center Kiln Room, 800 Asilomar Drive in Pacific Grove. To follow the story, visit https://www.facebook.com/SaveTheWinchesterDomesSignThePetition.