by Mark Van Streefkerk
The Ark Lodge Cinemas’ recent marquee message “SAVE THE ARK LODGE!” is a rallying call for help: the building recently went up for sale at the price of $2.5 million. Columbia City’s independent movie theater has been closed for almost six months due to COVID-19. Unable to pay rent without revenue from ticket sales, the Ark is protected by the state’s no-eviction moratorium. All that could change if the building, owned by the Washington State Elks Association, is sold. Calling on support from the community via T-shirt sales and an upcoming GoFundMe campaign, owner David McRae isn’t giving up the fight to keep the Ark afloat.
Housed in a Masonic Lodge nearly 100 years old in a protected historic landmark district, the asking price might be a little steep for potential buyers, McRae speculated, noting that the building’s protected status could discourage developers. If the building were sold, however, the fate of the Ark’s 15-year lease, good through 2027, could be in jeopardy.
“A best-case scenario is someone would come in and buy the building for the asking price and allow me to stay through the remainder of my lease. We’re not banking on that. What we want to do is to make sure we can kind of control our own future,” McRae said. “I just don’t want to abandon it or give up.”
Maintaining an independent movie theater in Seattle is no small feat, even in a pre-pandemic world. Recent years saw the closing of The Seven Gables and Guild 45, in the University District and Wallingford respectively. Since Washington’s stay-at-home mandate went into effect in March, South End movie theaters have been forced to temporarily shutter. Belltown’s Cinerama Theater closed its doors for good in May. Having furloughed his employees, McRae now maintains the Ark himself, as well as shipping T-shirts, part of a fundraising campaign that started in August.
Designed by Seattle artist Nick Gucker, the shirts feature an illustrated green monster towering over the Ark, wearing a face mask and surrounded by smoke and flames with the message, “Stay Safe in the 98118 So We Can All See a Movie Together at a Later Date.” Over 600 shirts have been sold so far, raising $15,000. Encouraged by the response, McRae plans on launching a GoFundMe campaign in mid-September, with another line of shirts, and a goal of $750,000.
McRae said the goal amount would “stabilize the theater, [and] whatever it needs to pay in back rent and other liabilities. We still owe money to the film studios. We still owe money in taxes and back rent.” Earmarking a portion of those funds raised, said McRae, would allow the Ark to tell the landlords that the Ark can stay current with the rent and pay rent through a certain point in time.
The funds raised would also go towards essential changes to the theater, making it fully accessible, installing a lift to the second level, better seating, and HVAC upgrades. All are improvements that would make the Ark better equipped for a Phase 3 reopening, and part of McRae’s vision of a community movie theater for Columbia City.
“I want to leave behind a legacy that this is the gem of Columbia City the whole Rainier Valley deserves to have,” McRae said. “I’m always really appreciative of the support from the community and the concern they’ve been showing. It’s been great. People have shown up and contributed. That’s why I’m kind of going with a big goal for this GoFundMe to really make the best of a bad situation. Let’s make the Ark Lodge the movie house everyone has always wanted to have in their neighborhood.”
Want to help save the Ark Lodge? Keep an eye out for the launch of the Ark’s GoFundMe later this month, and in the meantime, buy gift cards, V-tickets to stream “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” and T-shirts on their website.
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image by Mark Van Streefkerk.