If the Movie Bores, Admire the Doors

  • San Francisco Examiner
  • July 27, 1998

The 1921 Don Lee Building looks much the same after renovation

IT'S A FIRST for moviegoers: a new multiscreen movie house with an official, historic landmark for its entrance.

Such is AMC's latest San Francisco venture, using the 1921 Don Lee Building, once a home for Cadillacs and Radio Station KFRC.

It was built at a time when Van Ness Avenue was becoming Auto Row, and dealers of the era were seeking ever grander homes to display their new models.

On the west side of Van Ness, the late Earle C. Anthony commissioned the renowned Bernard Maybeck to design a palace for Packards, now the British Motor Car dealership.

On the opposite side of the street, Cadillac dealer Lee hired Charles Peter Weeks for his showroom at 1000 Van Ness. Weeks' credits include the Mark Hopkins Hotel, Oakland's Fox Theater, the Sir Francis Drake Hotel and the Chronicle Building at Fifth and Mission streets.

The resulting facade is less ornate than the showroom within but nonetheless an architectural trip unto itself.

Except for a blade-shaped marquee that blares AMC to passing motorists on busy U.S. 101, the seven-story structure looks much like the original, thanks to restoration efforts by the Martin Group, the developers, and their two principal architects, John Field and Jay Turnbull.

Its roof-line cornice, removed in 1955 for safety reasons, has now been restored, replacing the building's hatless-like look of later decades.

Although most other preservation work consisted of cleaning and rehabilitating, details of the exterior architecture now show up with improved clarity, especially its entrance, the facade's centerpiece.

Resembling an opera set for "Aida" or "Samson and Delilah," the bronze doors are heralded by Doric-style columns faced with terra-cotta laurels of unusual complexity.

A gabled archway tops the entry and two additional columns fluted by a spiral design guard the inner columns. But instead of a traditional Doric or Ionic capital, each of the outer columns is topped by a bear.

Why bears? "That's the California State Bear!" said preservation architect consultant Turnbull.