SAN JOSE -- They were the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria of Space Age movie theaters, a domed armada set sail across a landscape in which anything suddenly seemed possible.
At the time of its opening 50 years ago in a fallowed farm field, "looking like a flying saucer about to take off," Century 21 became the first theater in Northern California that challenged the imagination of moviegoers as much as the pictures that played there.
Now it's among the last of its kind standing. After a recent, dramatic showdown at City Hall, the cinematic spaceship that architect Vincent Raney designed for a "city obsessed with the future" looks likely to be saved because of its past. But a broader debate continues over just which parts of the Bay Area's history are truly historic: Raney's domes in Fremont and Oakland are already gone, and his Pleasant Hill theater gave way to the wrecking ball last year after a City Council vote, despite a last-minute campaign by preservationists to save it.
Raney built a dozen domes in the Bay Area, all for movie impresario Ray Syufy. The theater impresario agreed to locate San Jose's Century 21, 22 and 23 -- the original theater's round-roofed companions -- on 11.6 acres owned by the architect's family, which also controlled the adjacent Winchester Mystery House, the peaks and cupolas of its rooftop in stark counterpoint to the nearby dome star fleet.
"As this area grew and changed from agriculture to technology, these domes became an important emblem of that change," said Matthew Sutton, standing forlornly outside the now-closed Century 21, which opened in 1964 and closed on March 31. "They wanted to evoke the future and embrace the optimism of the Space Age, that postwar Camelot era." Sutton organized a Save the Domes Facebook page, which, along with a petition drive that drew more than 8,600 signatures on Change.org, was thought to have influenced the City Council's 7-4 vote on June 10 to grant landmark protection to Century 21.
Last year, a campaign to save the CinéArts, Raney's dome in Pleasant Hill, fell one vote short when it went before City Council. During that debate, one woman warned council members that "once it's destroyed, like the Twin Towers, you don't see it anymore." In San Jose, an impassioned dome defender cautioned the council against committing "dome-icide."
For now, Century 21 has been spared that fate, but Century 22 and 23 appear unlikely to survive long enough to justify their names. Century 22 opened in 1966 as a single dome, followed a year later by Century 23. But as multiplexes began to replace single-screen theaters in the 1970s, Century 22 expanded to a Picasso-esque embarrassment of riches with three domes, each one with its own screen.
Unlike buildings that create a wall along the street, these were "object buildings," said architect Sally Zarnowitz, a former member of San Jose's planning department, "that lend themselves to floating in the landscape."
Century 21 was clearly the mother ship, with its unmistakable resemblance to the flying saucer that brought Klaatu and Gort to this planet in the 1951 sci-fi classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Raney gave it a gaudy zigzag parapet that also evoked a merry-go-round, Zarnowitz said. "All of that played into the idea of leisure architecture in the '60s."
By then, Hollywood was terrified that movie audiences would stay home and watch television if they weren't given a good reason to get off the couch. That gave rise to Cinerama, a revolutionary three-screen projection system that was originally devised to help World War II aircraft gunners widen their field of vision. After a decade of development, it was left to Welton Becket -- the pre-eminent Los Angeles architect, who designed a round Capitol Records Building that resembled a stack of LPs -- to create a round movie theater that would accommodate the wide, curved Cinerama screen. The Cinerama Dome opened on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard in 1963, inspired by the geodesic domes patented in this country by Buckminster Fuller.
The Century 21 was supposed to be a Cinerama theater, but by the time it was built, the impracticality of running three projectors simultaneously had rendered the format obsolete. Raney's design had drawn from Becket's, but it was distinctive in its own way. A tiled shroud was drawn over a cinder block base, with steel beam struts emanating from its base like landing gear. The beams held up a hemispherical dome that floated above the auditorium, as Sutton recalled, "at sky level."
This cathedral dedicated to the worship of movies would never rival classical domed architecture, such as St. Peter's Basilica, or even the neoclassical Houston Astrodome -- which opened a year later than Century 21, and was billed as "the Eighth Wonder of the World." But San Jose's Century 21 brought together nearly a thousand people at a time in a shared emotional experience. And for many, that memory remains indelible. One speaker after another stood before the San Jose City Council and recounted a movie they had seen there. "We are all here telling you," one woman said, "this really matters to us."
Not 'very historic'
The domes sprang from an architectural movement of relatively brief duration known as Mid-Century Modern, and according to Heather M. David, author of "Mid-Century By the Bay," Century 21 is the first commercial building from that period in San Jose to be landmarked in almost 20 years. "It's a big deal," she said. "For a city that exploded in the '50s and '60s, you'd think we'd be embracing this architecture as a differentiator. But we're not."
Under the lash of City Manager A.P. "Dutch" Hamann, San Jose grew from a sleepy farm town of 92,000 in 1950 to a city of semiconductors and 460,000 citizens in 1969. But the futuristic flying saucers of the 1960s now look to some more like speed bumps to continued progress. "I don't see the building as very old," Mayor Chuck Reed said dismissively of Century 21, "and I don't see it as very historic."
The clamor to level the domes and widen the city's tax base would fit a pattern of wiping out such touchstones of the city's history like Lou's Village on West San Carlos Street and the IBM Building 25 in South San Jose, which was destroyed in a fire as preservationists battled to save it from becoming a Lowe's store.
"It is absolutely heartbreaking," David said. "If it's in the direct line of fire of something they want for a high-density urban village, it's a goner. It seems like we just don't care."
People in Pleasant Hill cared enough to form a nonprofit organization to fund legal expenses in the unsuccessful yearlong fight to save that dome. This year, Dick's Sporting Goods -- which some dome devotees have vowed never to patronize -- erected a small mural depicting the dome.
Just as in San Jose, supporters implored the Pleasant Hill council to save it in remembrance of favorite films they had seen there, but Zarnowitz believes they were motivated by more than nostalgia. "They're not just talking about the movies," she said. "They may think they are, but I think they're also talking about the quality of the architecture. People recognize that and attach themselves to it."
The lack of emotional attachment by San Jose's mayor to what is arguably his city's most iconic structure reminded some dome supporters of the Parisian elite's eagerness to tear down the Eiffel Tower after the turn of the 20th century. "There were Parisians who thought it was totally out of place, which, of course, it was," said former Saratoga Mayor Paul Jacobs, who was once a member of the Santa Clara County Historical Heritage Commission. "And it wasn't historic. But today it's the most iconic symbol of Paris you can find. I'm quite sure 100 years ago, Mayor Reed ... would have said this darn thing is just a pile of iron, and not commercially useful. What it takes is the ability to step out of the present and look toward the future."
When Century 21 opened in 1964, the promise implicit in its name was the future. But that future now depends on the plans of Federal Realty, the developer responsible for Santana Row, a shopping center across the street from the domes that imagines itself a Tuscan village. A Federal spokeswoman recently acknowledged that the builder was prepared for the possibility of the theater attaining historic status, but she declined to elaborate on the company's plans for the site.
"It's an incredible opportunity for them to do something different, and I think they could pull it off," David said. "There's enough space in San Jose for all of us to have something that we love, so I have hope that compromise is a possibility. These are the buildings that give us a sense of place. Why do they have to become the West Coast's largest Urban Outfitters?"
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him at Twitter.com/brucenewmantwit.