The purchase of the theater and its permanent preservation is a first-of-its-kind.
Black-Owned community cultural center and career-connected learning institution building arts leadership and production skills in the next generation of south Seattle youth.
Following a year of negotiation and fundraising, the Cultural Space Agency and Rainier Avenue Radio are proud to announce their partnership, and their purchase of the historic Columbia City Theater. With support from the Strategic Investment Fund, as well as direct philanthropy from local supporters, the two organizations have acquired the Theater for $3.2 million and plan to reopen a fully renovated facility in 2023. Through the creation of the New Columbia City Theater Trust, cultural community members and neighbors will have the opportunity to be direct owners of, and investors in, the property.
Tony Benton, founder and station manager of Rainier Avenue Radio and a long-time Seattle radio presence and community organizer, and Matthew Richter, co-founder and interim executive director of the Cultural Space Agency, are both thrilled to be partnering in the creation of the New Columbia City Theater partnership.
This is the first time the Columbia City Theater, in its 100-year history, will be owned by the community it is designed to serve. This purchase is one of the first cultural space acquisitions funded by the City of Seattle’s Strategic Investment Fund. It is also among the first of many cultural space acquisitions that the Cultural Space Agency is partnering on this year.
“I’ve been dreaming about owning this building for decades,” says Tony Benton. “I’m committed to creating opportunities for this space to be available to the community, to be supportive of our growth, to be a part of making this neighborhood thrive.”
“Construction of the Columbia City Theater was completed in 1923,” say Benton and Richter. “We are going to celebrate the theater’s 100th birthday next year, and we are going to ensure its survival as a thriving community-owned cultural space for at least another century.”
Built in stages between 1920 and 1923 as a candy shop, a vaudeville theater, and an early cinema, the Columbia City Theater has borne witness to multiple waves of cultural heritage in Rainier Valley. Now after 99 years of programming (and, recently, a few years of not programming), this historic venue will finally be owned directly by the very cultural communities it has always served.
The long list of luminaries that often gets recognized as having performed on these boards (and we have to admit that this list gets repeated in the press regularly, but without much documentation) includes Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Quincy Jones, and Ray Charles. It is said that a young Jimi Hendrix played his first show with his band the Velvetones, while still attending Garfield High School, at the Columbia City Theater. The theater’s use as a cinema stretches back to the very dawn of “talkies” (1923 was the year of the first commercial distribution of a sound-on-film release), and Tony Benton, owner of Rainier Avenue Radio and partner in the theater’s acquisition, remembers growing up on a string of both Black and “Blaxploitation” films there in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The theater was home to much of Seattle’s punk and early grunge music scenes in the 1980’s, and was a mainstay of the 1990’s rave culture, when it was known as “The Lish House.” It has housed decades of community celebrations, and provided a platform for emerging artists gaining traction in Seattle and launching in to national careers, such as Ahamefule Oluo, John Roderick, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, Ishmael Butler, and many others.
“This theater made misfits feel like superheroes,” says one long-time concert-goer. “If you needed a night off and wanted to hear some amazing music or just party with other people who need the same thing you do, then the Columbia City Theater is the place to make it happen.”
The building was designed by John L. McCauley, a Seattle architect who lived around the corner from the theater and also designed the Ark Lodge building in Columbia City, as well as the King County Courthouse in Pioneer Square. The building “has a small but handsome façade” according to its listing in the City of Seattle’s historic database.
Originally designed as a rectangular building, the theater was redesigned in a “T” shape, with the back of the building containing the auditorium. “According to local tradition,” the City’s historic database continues, “the reason for the unusual design was a city ordinance, which stated that any amusement building had to be 500 feet from a school. The auditorium was put to the rear of the building, down a long hallway, so that the 500-foot requirement was met.” (It’s noteworthy that 100 years later, Seattle still has the same silly restrictions on the books about separating community spaces…)
The New Columbia City Theater is a new partnership between two organizations: Rainier Avenue Radio and The Cultural Space Agency. Through this partnership, the two organizations will co-own and co-manage the property, which Rainier Avenue Radio will occupy and program. This acquisition has been entirely funded through the City of Seattle’s Strategic Investment Fund, with additional philanthropic contributions supporting building upgrades.
Rainier Avenue Radio was founded by Tony Benton in 2017 as a 24/7 community-based internet radio station and digital media hub, dedicated to amplifying the diverse voices of Seattle and its surrounding communities.
Rainier Avenue Radio is proud to offer opportunities to engage with critical issues, compelling stories and quality entertainment. You’ll hear a range of music; sports; regional traffic; local & national news; happenings around greater Seattle; and talk shows including political, current events, diverse languages, and children’s programming created BY members of our communities…and we’ll continue to broadcast “live” FROM our communities.
The Cultural Space Agency is a mission-driven cultural real estate development company, imagined and designed by a diverse group of BIPOC cultural community members, and chartered by the City of Seattle in 2021. It is an intermediary between the worlds of commercial real estate development and community-based cultural operators. Chartered by the City of Seattle, it is now autonomous and independent. It is dedicated to creating community wealth through an anti-racist lens, using cultural space, broadly defined, as its primary instrument.
Led by co-founder and interim executive director Matthew Richter, the organization has raised over $17 million in its first year to support acquisitions of cultural spaces in partnership with community-based cultural organizations.
The Columbia City Theater is among the first of a string of projects that the Space Agency will be announcing over the course of the coming months.
This purchase has been funded entirely through the City of Seattle’s Strategic Investment Fund, a $30,000,000 fund designed to support Seattle organizations’ acquisitions of real estate for community use. The Strategic Investment Fund, designed and operated by the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development, supported this project with a $3,500,000 award for both acquisition and essential building upgrades.
“This win is the result of strong collaboration among Rainier Avenue Radio, the Cultural Space Agency, our Community Advisory Group and City staff. Columbia City’s new gathering and cultural space and career-connected learning program will be a permanent home for cultural expression and education in the Rainier Valley.”– Rico Quirindongo, Acting Director of the Seattle Office of Planning and Community Development.
Bruce Harrell, Mayor of Seattle, also had this to say: “Financial support from the City’s Strategic Investment Fund is helping create a sustainable space for Columbia City residents that will drive new economic and cultural opportunities and build stronger communities. This is the kind of difference-making collaborative effort that’s only possible when we bring together City government, local communities, and public-private-philanthropic partners as One Seattle.”
There are significant physical improvements that will need to be made to this 100-year-old historic structure.
We intend to make this building accessible to people of all abilities and mobilities. Amazingly, for the past 100 years only those who could navigate a dozen stairs could access the main showroom. We intend to make the space fully available to the artists and communities who gather here.
We intend to invest in seismic structural upgrades to this old unreinforced masonry (URM) building, ensuring a safe environment in one of the planet’s most seismically active areas.
We intend to address filtering and air exchange systems that make the air itself safer for audiences.
We intend to celebrate the theater’s connection to the street and to the neighborhood, investing in façade improvements and new theatrical signage.
We also intend to build a facility that honors the work that artists are doing within it; professional lighting, sound, broadcasting, and other systems will all be upgraded and improved.
We will build a professional broadcast facility for Rainier Avenue Radio that will offer community members access to communications tools that strengthen community cohesion.
We intend to construct new gender-neutral restrooms for patrons.
We will build a Creative Arts Digital Media Academy, delivering digital media training to community members in an ongoing effort to develop a next generation of content creators. This project will provide access to training and livable wage career paths for students of digital media and other current technologies. Students acquire the necessary skills to create their own videos, news broadcasts, websites and on-air radio broadcasts. Students receive instruction in communications and journalism and the use of social media for social change. The program provides hands-on training. It provides mentorship. It builds leaderships skills, teamwork, and mutual respect. It delivers hard skills training in audio engineering, production, on-air broadcast, photography, journalism, and administrative office skills.
We will create an opportunity for the neighboring community to be a part of owning this project. To that end, we will be creating The New Columbia City Theater Trust, an opportunity for our neighbors to invest with us in the future of these buildings. More on that opportunity this spring and summer.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
The Cultural Space Agency
Matthew Richter, interim executive director
Rainier Avenue Radio
Tony Benton, founder and station manager
Office of Planning and Community Development
Jason Kelly, Communications Director