Although the faded white- and pink-colored Atlantic Theater, built in the early 1940s with Art Deco, Streamline Moderne-style architecture, is slated to be demolished and replaced by a newly designed library, architects have assured local residents that the historic structure’s famous tower will still live on, at least in concept.
Final designs of the proposed North Neighborhood Library were unveiled to a crowd of more than 80 people during a community assembly at Houghton Park on Feb. 2. Envisioned by city officials as a state-of-the-art “focal point” for the North Village Center, the library being proposed on a more than 25,000-square-foot site on the 5800 block of Atlantic Avenue between South and 59th streets is expected to take the place of the current library on Orange Avenue.
Eighth District Long Beach City Councilmember Al Austin, who co-hosted the presentation with 9th District City Councilmember Steven Neal, lauded the project as a critical centerpiece continuing the “revitalization” of north Long Beach. “I see a renaissance transpiring slowly but surely,” Austin said.
Richard D’Amato, principal architect of LPA Inc., which has designed nearly 22 libraries in California, said exterior designs of the proposed library in north Long Beach were developed out of discussions from a series of public workshops conducted nearly two years ago. He said interior designs are to be finished in the next few months.
“What we really tried to do was understand this community and the site that the library is going to inhabit,” he said. “It’s not going to be a library that you will see anywhere else, even in Long Beach or anywhere else in California. This is a library that’s designed specifically for this area and this neighborhood.”
Although it’s still undetermined how much of the existing spire that resembles the famous RKO-Radio Pictures trademark– and once flashed with neon lights– will be saved as part of the new building, D’Amato said the project would “preserve and ensure the nature” of the tower.
He said the tower would be integrated as a “focal point” of the library instead of being used as just a freestanding element, adding that the “re-envisioned” tower will be lit at night, and people will be able to look from under it through a glass ceiling as part of a children’s reading room.
“What we really wanted to do was create a sense that this was an architectural statement that happened in the north Long Beach area,” D’Amato said. “Now it becomes the heart of the building, not just standing on the plaza.”
As a longtime Long Beach resident, D’Amato said he has a personal appreciation for the project. “Driving past this site on a daily basis, I always see that tower there, and it’s really wonderful to be able to bring something back to the community I live in,” he said.
The new designs, however, come years after local historic-resource preservationists fought but failed to save the now condemned and seismically outdated theater building that is considered a city landmark harkening back to the golden era of local “movie palaces” and has sat vacant for decades next to an abandoned furniture warehouse. According to historical references, the theater was designed by prominent Los Angeles architect Carl Boller and built by the Stivers Brothers, first opening in 1942 after a year of construction. The theater has been closed and vacant since the 1970s.
John Thomas, past president of Long Beach Heritage and past board member of the now dissolved Long Beach Redevelopment Agency (RDA), said the group first pushed for the new library and community center to be built as an “adaptive reuse” project that he said would have incorporated more of the “character-defining features” of the building’s architectural time period. A City study, however, concluded that such an undertaking would have added delays and increased costs to the project, he said, while area residents collectively decided they wanted the project to “move forward faster.”
In addition, Thomas said it was determined that “from a seismic and facility standpoint,” the existing theater structure wouldn’t have worked. In the end, the Long Beach RDA board agreed in 2010 that the design would spare the tower, along with terrazzo tiles and other architectural features that would be “preserved, protected and reused.”
Thomas said it appears the architect is “moving in the direction” originally agreed upon, however he couldn’t entirely confirm whether that was the case. He said much of the theater has already been gutted. “I would hope all the players at the table… would embrace the original agreement,” Thomas said.
Still, he said preserving historic structures is vital and important for Long Beach, adding that neighborhood theaters were once prevalent in the city but now have dwindled down to only the Art Theatre on 4th Street.
“The key here from a historic preservation standpoint is we need to do a better job of protecting our historic assets so we don’t get to the point where there isn’t any other recourse financially but to demo them,” he said.
Meanwhile, D’Amato presented other design aspects of the new library, including: glass walls; spaces for public art; a 3,800-square-foot community center that will feature an outdoor patio; a plaza and promenade leading to the main entry of the library; about 5,000 square feet of retail space and another space for on-site parking.
He said the library would also feature an atrium space that will have filtered natural daylight streaming through and will connect to various reading areas for children, teens and adults. “You will be able to see every part of the library if you’re standing in that atrium space,” D’Amato said. “It will be a bright, lively and active space.”
Glenda Williams, director of the Long Beach Public Library, who presented program elements, said plans for the proposed library include Wi-Fi accessibility, study rooms for research, spaces for educational workshops and shelf space to add books as needed. She said the library will also include anywhere from 16 to 20 computers.
Construction of the nearly $8-million project is being funded through proceeds from Build America Bonds issued by the former RDA and should be allocated sometime in April, once the State approves a “finding of completion” in the ongoing redevelopment-dissolution process, said Robert Zur Schmiede, deputy director for Long Beach Development Services. He added that the project is expected to return to the Long Beach Planning Commission for final approval in either late March or early April.