It’s a wrap for the historic Atlantic Theater in north Long Beach, but a sequel to the abandoned site will come in the form of a new branch library that city leaders say will be a “focal point” for the community once constructed.
Local residents, stakeholders and city officials watched as the shovel of an excavator tore a hole through a window on the side of the Art Deco-style theater building last Saturday, Jan. 25, sending a cloud of red-brick dust into the air.
The momentous occasion, which included an Uptown Renaissance Festival with live entertainment, food and exhibits, however, evoked about as much joy as it did sadness as residents and city leaders heralded long-awaited plans to build a new North Neighborhood Library that is set to replace the nearly 72-year-old theater on the 5800 block of Atlantic Avenue.
City officials have stated that demolition of the theater is expected to take a little more than a month to complete, and construction of the new library will begin later this year.
Ninth District Councilmember Steven Neal said during the event that the beginning of the demolition marks “the passage of one historic building to another,” adding that the new public facility would complement a number of progressive steps the community has taken recently, including the opening of the new Fire Station 12 last year.
“This project makes a pivotal step in the Uptown renaissance movement,” he said. “With major investments in our public infrastructure, renewed interest in civic engagement and restored vitality in our business corridors, now, more than ever, north Long Beach Uptown is poised for a major transformation.”
The new public facility is expected to be the newest branch library in north Long Beach in more than 60 years after the area’s first library was built in 1951 on Orange Avenue. According to library officials, the new structure will also be the largest branch library in the Long Beach system at 25,000 square feet.
The $16-million project, which is being paid for through a bond issued by the City’s former redevelopment agency, has been in the making for several years after numerous community meetings and planning sessions.
Mayor Bob Foster acknowledged the work of past councilmember Val Lerch, Neal, 8th District Councilmember Austin, local residents and city planning staff to make the project a reality. He noted that, at one point, city officials worried the project would be “dead” after the State shut down redevelopment agencies.
“This is going to be the focal point of north Long Beach,” Foster said. “It’s going to be a great community resource. It’s going to be a great source of learning and enrichment for adults and children alike, and I couldn’t be happier with this.”
Nancy Young, director of development for the Long Beach Public Library Foundation, expressed the need for literacy and education in north Long Beach and the entire city.
“Illiteracy in Long Beach is still an ongoing challenge, and we face it as a whole community,” she said, adding that statistics show only about 43 percent of children in Long Beach are reading at 3rd-grade level, and the Long Beach Unified School District has about a 22-percent drop-out rate.
According to library officials, the new state-of-the-art library will include 70,000 print titles and media as well as a 3,800-square-foot community center and reading areas for children, teens and adults. The structure will also have 48 computers, including those designed for people with disabilities, and Wi-Fi capabilities.
Local historic-building preservationists had once fought to save the Atlantic Theater in an effort to repurpose the condemned and seismically outdated building that has been an icon in north Long Beach for decades with its tall tower, which once shined with a neon light during the heyday of “movie palaces.”
City officials said the building operated as a movie theater and entertainment venue for more than 40 years before being adapted and reused for various purposes, most recently as a church and as a discount furniture store.
Neal assured the crowd that certain artifacts, including the tower and an interior fountain, would be salvaged in cooperation with a historic-preservation consultant. The councilmember also noted that the architect for the project plans to incorporate the theater’s tower into a glass roof of the library, overlooking a reading room, and the library would also have permanent displays of artifacts from the theater.
“We’ve taken great pains to ensure that we properly deconstruct the building,” Neal said.
Evan Braude, co-president of the Historical Society of Long Beach, said the Atlantic Theater was first opened on May 22, 1942. He said the Art Deco theater was the last designed by architect Carl Henry Boller, who had built other movie theaters, including one in Los Angeles and another in Fontana that still stand today.
“We are a little bit sad to say goodbye to the theater and its neon tower but at the same time encouraged the spot will soon behold a new library that will serve the area for many generations to come,” Braude said. “I also hope– and I now actually know because it’s stated here– when the library is open there will be a special section honoring the history of the theater, hopefully Carl Henry Boller and the unique history of the north Long Beach neighborhood that surrounds it.” ß