By Jocelyn Moore
Northwest Asian Weekly
In the heart of downtown Seattle, in the Skinner Building, lies a hidden architectural gem with Chinese-inspired interior design that evokes the sacred palaces and a temple of Imperial China — it’s the 5th Avenue Theatre.
The theater is a different world where dragons, phoenixes, and guardian lions are at peace in their natural habitat while protecting the sanctuary of Seattle’s modern thespians.
“Everything you see here is exactly the same as [when] it was built in 1926,” said Connie Corrick, the student program manager of the 5th Avenue Theatre.
Designed by American architect Robert Reamer and Norwegian interior designer Gustav Liljestrom, the ornate interior of the theater is modeled after three notable architectural heritages of Imperial China: the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heavenly Peace, and the Summer Palace.
At a time when most theaters were designed under the influence of Italian or Spanish architecture, the West Coast’s 5th Avenue Theatre was a noted deviation.
Corrick said the lobby of the theater is modeled after the Summer Palace, specifically the Long Corridor which is a 728-meter (0.45 mile) covered walkway that runs through pavilions and gardens along the side of a lake. The paintings on the beams and ceiling of the theater’s lobby are designed to mimic those at the palace
Walking past the two male guardian lions into the auditorium, the scene changes from the tranquil Summer Palace to the glorious and lavish past of the Imperial Chinese emperors.
On the ceiling of the auditorium is a giant, five-toed golden dragon that has the Pearl of Perfection Chandelier emerging from its mouth. The chandelier resembles a traditional Chinese wedding headdress with an illuminating pearl. The design of the ceiling is a replica of the one in the Hall of Supreme Harmony of the Forbidden City, except two times bigger.
“It is 18 feet from the tip to tip of his (the dragon’s) whiskers,” Corrick said.
In addition to the prominent dragon on the ceiling, there are also many smaller dragons tucked throughout the auditorium, many of which are easily spotted by guests.
“Up at the top [of the stage], there is a dragon consulting with Buddha, working to become the best leader that he can,” Corrick said. “I love that below them is a whole row of dragons and they are all cubs.”
Professor Jeffrey Ochsner from the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington said the theater was created in the era when going to a performance was an escape from the everyday world of ordinary life.
“The lobby and the auditorium take us away from everyday life to a place that most people could only imagine,” Ochsner said. “This was a period when most people did not travel, so the interior, said to be based on the traditional decorated wood buildings of the Forbidden City in Beijing, offered an experience that the audience could likely experience nowhere else.”
In the 1920s, the aviation technology was expensive, and most people could not afford the cost and time to travel long distance.
While used as a theater for silent movies and motion pictures from its beginnings, the 5th Avenue Theatre closed its door in the 1970s, when ticket sales dropped. Some suggested a tear-down of the building, while other suggested other uses for the space.
“Thank goodness it didn’t turn into a Chinese restaurant,” Corrick joked.
Fortunately, the nonprofit 5th Avenue Theatre Association formed in 1979 with the help of local companies and community leaders to revitalize the theater, making Seattle a home to many world-class musicals.
“The 5th Ave is a beautiful theater, and I always enjoy a chance to see its interior,” said Calandra Childers, deputy director of City of Seattle Office of Arts & Culture. “Seattle is really fortunate to have so many examples of early 20th century architecture as part of the Seattle Downtown Historic Theatre district.”
Childers said that many arts and culture organizations in Seattle like the 5th Avenue Theatre are engaging the Asian community.
“The recent ‘Waterfall’ show, which I believe featured an all-Asian cast, set during WWII in Japan and Thailand, is a great example of how Seattle has an appetite for multicultural stories,” Childers said.
“Waterfall” is a 2015 musical about a forbidden love between a Thai student and an American woman in 1930s Bangkok.
The theater will celebrate its 90th anniversary on Sept. 24.
As for the exact number of dragons in the theater? That is yet to be determined. (end)
Jocelyn Moore can be reached at email@example.com.