Friday, 23 September 2011

Crocodile Tears for the Orinda Theater

As a certifiable Art Deco-dent, I’ve been particularly interested in the Orinda Theatre preservation controversy (“Save Orinda’s Treasure,” The Tribune, 6/26/84). So Saturday, I deBARTed at Orinda to take a look. Believe me, I couldn’t have been more underwhelmed. Far from being a treasure, local or otherwise, the Orinda at its pristine best was only a slick exercise at the end of Moderne boom. Now, maimed and decrepit, it in no way deserves the crocodile tears that are being shed on its behalf.
I say this as a preservationist to my very marrow. No, this is not an issue in preservation; it is an attack of nostalgia ambiguous blessing of modernization as symbolized by The Crossroads shopping complex.
And it is crucial to limit preservationist energies to saving the truly remarkable and invaluable. I literally will circle the globe to get an Art Deco fix. Last fall, I “discovered” and relished the Colegio Salesiano in Macau, the great Bank of China in central Hong Kong, and the stunning People’s Hotel on the banks of the Pearl River in Canton. These are world-class Deco, true masterpieces that I am happy to report are alive and flourishing—which is not true, in general, of Deco in the Third World. (The Deco boom cut short by World War II in former colonies in Africa, Latin America and Asia, was the last architectural presence of the European powers.) By these standards, the Orinda is wholly negligible. To speak of it as the “little (Oakland) Paramount” is sheer self-deception.
And I found it in such a pitiable condition that a bulldozer would almost be a merciful coupe de grace. Its ticket kiosk has been removed—replaced by a ticket window that displaced one of the coming-attractions poster displays, and from which booth the fully automated projection booth is run. The wooden Deco Doors with their sandblasted decorations have been replaced (only the phone booth door remains as a memory of that Deco design feature). And the ceramic water fountain, now isolated from the patrons by an added barrio of popcorn- and soda-vending counters, stands there in shame, a makeshift base of the vendors’ electronic calculator. And anyone who has looked at the interior murals lately and still calls them “magnificent” needs a crash course in art appreciation. They are gawky, pretentious allegories; poor old Thales (the Greek philosopher who invented the “air, earth, fire, water” paradigm) would turn over in his grave at the mere sight of them—even without the googoo red and blue back lighting that is turned on in the ceiling during intermission.
In short, there is no architectural merit in the structure—the National Trust for Historic Preservation to the contrary notwithstanding. Remember the Trust is after constituents—any constituents! And they are hard to come by in Kleenex America. And the Trust tends to be elitist and anti-commercial in its biases, ironic in the extreme when it comes to Deco, which was always a quintessentially commercial mode.
Are there historic reasons for saving the Orinda? On this point, I wonder why the building is not one of the 14 on the historic mural outlining the “treasures of Orinda” outside the BART station. And I am puzzled as well to discover that this historic treasure rates only six lines in Muir Sorrick’s “The History of Orinda: Gateway to Contra Costa County,” the only volume I could find on the village in the excellent local history collection of the University of San Francisco. The ubiquitously eponymous Donald Rheem figures far more in that local history—as the builder of Rheem Highlands (1948), Rheem Glen (1951), and Rheem View Acres (1953). In 1949 he built the Rheem Building at the crossroads; in 1954 he began a shopping mall known as Rheem Center with a Rheem Theatre added in 1957 (those 840 comfy seats in the Orinda are bequests from the since converted Rheem theater); in 1955 he began Rheem Valley Estates; for variety’s sake, Rheem called the next unit Donald Drive. Perhaps Mr. Rheem’s publicist should have been assigned to the Orinda case!
In all this hoopla, nobody seems to have taken a fair look at Clark Wallace’s Crossroads project. It’s just assumed that a modern shopping complex needs to be a decline from an Art Deco movie house. If that kind of thinking had prevailed in Orinda in 1941, they’d be defending a Spanish Mission theater! Fashions change—in architecture as well as in clothing. Every great Gothic cathedral in Europe replaces some lesser, but nonetheless lovely, Romanesque church.
The issue should be quality, not the blind defense of a building because it’s the only thing Orindans trying to incorporate as a city can rally around. (Teddy Roosevelt used to say of the Spanish-American War—“It wasn’t much of a war, but it was the only war we had.” The Orinda isn’t much Deco, but a walk along its Main Drag last Saturday night makes me think the locals may be right—it’s the only architecture they’ve got.) But let’s critique the Crossroads honestly and openly. Is it an architectural monstrosity? Some of the greatest architectural spaces in America are shopping centers—Victor Gruen’s Northland in Detroit established a great tradition of excellence in that genre.
There may be sentimental and political reasons for saving the Orinda, but there aren’t good artistic or historic ones. The tears that are being shed in Orinda attest to only one thing—most Americans haven’t the vaguest sense of what is great, merely good, and painfully godawful in their architectural heritage.
If the Orindans could use this flap to deepen the community’s sense of what great architecture and interior decoration are, and why those things are crucial to keeping a community’s sense of self-esteem and consciousness high, then this brouhaha could become more than a tempest in an Eastbay teapot. Calling Clark Wallace a philistine is just cheap self-righteousness. This either / or mentality merely exacerbates a murky debate. We need more light and less heat. Let’s have a dialogue not dual diatribes on the Orinda preservation debate.
Patrick D. Hazard is a San Francisco-based writer.
Reprinted from the Oakland Tribune, July 5, 1984


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