S.F.’s deteriorated Alexandria Theater loses its iconic sign to storm damage, neglect

Nanette Asimov

Jan. 21, 2023 Updated: Jan. 23, 2023 4:46 p.m. (SFChronicle.com)

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The recently closed Alexandria Theater sits idle along Geary and 18th streets in April, 2004.
The recently closed Alexandria Theater sits idle along Geary and 18th streets in April, 2004.Michael Macor, Staff / SFC

Among the many structures damaged by the recent storms was the art-deco vertical blade that for 100 years announced the name of the Alexandria movie theater at 5400 Geary Blvd. in San Francisco, an orange beacon slicing through the Richmond district fog.

On Friday, by order of the city’s Department of Building Inspection, the owners of the shuttered theater removed the iconic 4-by-14-foot name from the property that has stood neglected two decades.

“It’s a sign!” Supervisor Connie Chan, whose district includes the theater site, said Saturday without irony. “Mother Nature’s power is pushing us to move this forward.”

Maybe so. But as Chan, who took office two years ago, noted: “I feel like the ghost of the theater has been haunting my predecessors.” And Chan, as well.

The once glamorous, three-screen movie theater at Geary and 18th Avenue shut down and was sold in 2004. It’s covered with graffiti. A passerby had one word for the building: “disgusting.”

But to trained eyes like those of San Francisco historian Woody LaBounty, the building remains a treasure.

“I’m hanging out, basically making sure they don’t come out with any of the gilded medallions or other interior material,” LaBounty tweeted on Saturday, as he monitored the site. He noted that pieces of the blade sign were lying around the entryway, “being saved, apparently.” And he’s keeping an eye on the marquee.

The old theater isn’t an official landmark, but it contains elements of historic significance, including murals and “a chandelier as big as a Prius,” Chan said.

“It’s such a prominent site and a great gateway to the Outer Richmond,” LaBounty tweeted. “What could be a terrific attraction and center of community life has been left to molder for almost 20 yrs. Numerous ownership groups and 4 district supes since it closed and we’ve gotten nowhere.”

Chan tried to broker a deal for the city to buy the site and create affordable housing, but the owners wouldn’t bite, she said. She also left them a voicemail to encourage them to save the sign but hasn’t heard back.

Who are the owners?

The building department’s violation notice refers only to “Timespace Alexandria LLC.” Complaints filed with the city going back to 2001 all say “owner data suppressed.”

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Chan said she didn’t remember offhand who the owners were.

Still, she said, the owners submitted a permit for a housing project in September. They had earlier planned to put in a swimming pool on the ground floor, classrooms on the second floor and office space at the top, but those plans fell through when the pandemic hit.

A decade ago, the owners said they would be renovating it into a 221-seat, single-screen theater with retail space on the ground floor and a restaurant on the second floor.

“It’s their land, their property,” Chan said, adding that she hopes the housing plan becomes real. “I hope they consider as many affordable units as possible.”

Meanwhile, the old Alexandria Theater, built in 1923, is celebrating its 100th birthday even more decrepit than it was just a few days ago.

Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: nasimov@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @NanetteAsimov

Written By Nanette Asimov

Nanette covers California’s public universities – the University of California and California State University – as well as community colleges and private universities. She’s written about sexual misconduct at UC and Stanford, the precarious state of accreditation at City College of San Francisco, and what happens when the UC Berkeley student government discovers a gay rights opponent in its midst. She has exposed a private art college where students rack up massive levels of debt (one student’s topped $400k), and covered audits peering into UC finances, education lawsuits and countless student protests.

But writing about higher education also means getting a look at the brainy creations of students and faculty: Robotic suits that help paralyzed people walk. Online collections of folk songs going back hundreds of years. And innovations touching on everything from virtual reality to baseball.

Nanette is also covering the COVID-19 pandemic and served as health editor during the first six months of the crisis, which quickly ended her brief tenure as interim investigations editor.

Previously, Nanette covered K-12 education. Her stories led to changes in charter school laws, prompted a ban on Scientology in California public schools, and exposed cheating and censorship in testing.

A past president of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter, Nanette has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in sociology from Queens College. She speaks English and Spanish.VIEW COMMENTS

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