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Farewell to the Harvard Exit Theater

Tonight is the last night films will be shown at Capitol Hill’s Harvard Exit Theater. I attended a film there last weekend and said goodbye to one of my favorite Seattle theaters.

The historic brick building constructed in 1925 by the Woman’s Century Club has been sold to a developer. The building has been used as an art-house theater since the late 1960s when the Woman’s Century Club sold it after years of dwindling membership. The club has continued to use the building for its meetings under an informal agreement with the owner. The club’s antique furnishings still grace the theater’s lobby.

The sale of the building means a loss to Seattleites who enjoy a fine film in a beautiful, warm setting, and a loss to the women’s service club that built the structure and has called the building its clubhouse for ninety years.

The developer’s plans are yet unclear, but rumor has it he will be turning the building into office space, a bar, and a restaurant, and claims that he will maintain the structure’s historic integrity. But even if the building is preserved in a way that honors its historical significance, if it is no longer a charming theater, or a place for a group to gather, what happens to the theatergoer or the club member once they are displaced?

We identify activities, events, people, loss, joy, camaraderie, education, and many other vital aspects of life with the specific place in which those interactions occur. What happens when we lose a historical place in which decades of service, social interaction, entertainment and learning have occurred? The Woman’s Century Club could meet in private homes as they did before, and moviegoers could attend the multiplex at the mall, but the enjoyment of those activities are diminished when they can no longer be enjoyed in a special place.

Will The Woman’s Century Club endure without its connection with this unique place? Will moviegoers still go out to the theater when the experience has lost some of its allure? Historical places matter and we should fight to preserve them.

I’m saddened at the loss of this building in its current form, and can only hope that the developer will tastefully restore and re-create it into a gathering place where generations of people will obtain and cultivate fond memories, and where those individuals who harbor remembrances from the building’s past incarnations can still assemble and reminisce.

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