Construction Continues on Cinema 21, the 'Slowest Moving' Renovation Project in the History of Pasadena

Sixteen-year rehab process of landmark building continues

Published : Friday, February 14, 2020 | 5:42 AM

After its final run, as a Spanish adult film theater, the Cinema 21 closed its doors in 1989. Over the years the landmark building on Washington Blvd. just west of Lake Ave. has fallen into disrepair, but now work is being done on the dilapidated landmark building.

According to Planning Director, David Reyes, construction is under way at the Washington Theater, once known as the Cinema 21, in accordance with approved building plans and a certificate of appropriateness approved by the Historic Preservation Commission.

“The renovation will result in the structural upgrades to ensure the historic theater box remains and the rehabilitation of apartments units in the adjacent portion of the site,” Reyes told Pasadena Now.

Owners of the building would not discuss their plans for the building. When contacted by phone owner Jacqueline Buickians told Pasadena Now to call back in two to three months. She would not say if a theater or performance space would be part of the project.

Gagik and Jacqueline Buickians paid $1.4 million for the theater 16 years years ago.

Two years ago, there was talk of a mixed use project including retail and micro-apartments. At that point, the owners said the project was almost done.

Work and continued for over 16 years on restoring Pasadena's historic Cinema 21 building. Here, work underway in 2017, via the Friends of The Washington Theater Facebook page.

“This is a historic building that Pasadena Heritage has worried about for decades,” said Sue Mossman, executive director of preservationist group Pasadena Heritage. “We’re always delighted to learn new work is underway because it is so urgently needed. My understanding is that current work is focused on the theater box and how to get it re-roofed and what will be an acceptable solution to that urgent need.”

Glory Days

During the 1970s, the 900-seat film theater was an important resource for the community, showing African-American films like “Shaft” in a mostly African-American community.

“The Cinema 21 was a place where we could go and see a movie for 50 cents. And at that time, the genre was really black exploitation movies,” said Councilman John Kennedy. “But as much as we wanted to get beyond black exploitation movies, it was also a part of black culture.”

Originally known as the Washington Theatre, the structure was built in 1924, about the same time the city’s famed YWCA building opened in the city’s Civic Center and eight years before the completion of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on East Green Street.

And although the city has spent the better part of a decade attempting to find use for the Julia Morgan YWCA building, the owners of the movie theater have spent nearly 20 years attempting to reopen the building as various projects.

Since it was shuttered in 1989, three City Councilmen — Rick Cole, Bill Crowfoot and Victor Gordo — vowed to see the property reopened. But in each case, downturns in the economy, changes of ownership, the loss of state redevelopment funds and the costs involved with renovating the building have stalled their best efforts.

“I used to go there as a kid on Sundays with my family for double features in Spanish,” Gordo said. “So I know the theater well. It’s very sad to see it dilapidated .”

History in the Making

The building was reportedly designed by famed architects Clarence L. Jay and Henry M. Patterson, who designed the Mountain View Mausoleum in Altadena,and the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, respectively.

Originally the theater showed silent films and vaudeville shows when it first opened. In 1972, it became one of the first – if not the first, black-owned independent movie theaters in Southern California when Ralph Riddle, a community relations specialist and Pasadena’s first African-American police officer, purchased it.

According to an article by Matt Hormann, Riddle told “Boxoffice Magazine” in 1972 that the theater also served as a way to “provide jobs for young minority people” and teach them business skills. “We want them to have pride in our theater, as we have pride in them.”

Councilman Kennedy said “it’s a unique piece of history for Pasadena and particularly for the African American community.”

By the late 70s, changing demographics, multiplexes and the inability of the theater to attract summer blockbusters severely impacted business and in 1979, Metropolitan Theaters Corporation, an exhibitor that catered to Latino audiences, took over the lease, transforming the theater into a Spanish-language venue.

As home video came on the scene and independent movie houses began dying out, including the half dozen on Colorado Boulevard, the Cinema 21 continued to decline and closed its doors in 1989.

The late Gina Zamperelli, who led the fight to keep the unsuccessful fight to keep the Raymond Theater open, managed the theater as a rehearsal space. Former  Councilman Rick Cole pushed to reopen the venue, but the new owner was not interested.

Fade to Black

In 2003, the city was forced to closed the apartment portion of the building and spent $500,000 to relocate 127 tenants, including 56 children.

At that time, mold and water damage had damaged the building.

Other problems included warped hallway floors and insect infestation. Almost every window was either boarded up or broken.

After the Buickians purchased the building a year later, the city tried to help them move the project forward.

But things did not go smoothly. In 2009, under then Pasadena Planning Director Richard Bruckner, the city canceled a $5 million agreement which would have created affordable housing out of the 30 long-shuttered apartment units above the structure, plus office and retail space, all while preserving the theater.

The money was moved elsewhere after the Buickians missed an April 28 deadline that year to deliver a copy of their loan documents to Bruckner’s department.

“We couldn’t let those dollars revert to the state,” Gordo said. “So we moved swiftly so the dollars wouldn’t be lost from the city and renovated Hudson Oaks that is about a block and a half away, to a building that had burned down. We used the funds to turn it into an affordable permanent supportive housing project.”

When Bruckner left the city he told the Pasadena Weekly not seeing the Cinema 21 project completed was one of his biggest regrets.

“It’s been under renovation and construction for multiple years. It’s been the slowest moving renovation and construction project in the history of the city,” Mayor Terry Tornek said.

Six months ago, the Historic Preservation Commission paid a site visit to the location.

“We looked at it twice and there’s been extensive remodeling done on the inside,” said Commissioner Sue Kranwinkle. “Everybody on the commission says ‘how’s the place on Washington going?’ after they drive by it.”

Mossman said there was still some hope the site would still be used as a theater.

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