by Mark Van Streefkerk
Ark Lodge Cinemas, Columbia City’s movie theater, launched a GoFundMe on September 19 with the goal of raising $750,000. It’s an ambitious first step in the Ark owner David McRae’s long-term hope of raising $3 million overall, enough to buy the almost 100-year-old Masonic building and securing the theater as the “Gem of Columbia City” for years to come. In addition to the GoFundMe, the Ark launched a capital campaign to attract bigger investors, with rewards ranging from limited edition T-shirts to opportunities to rename the Ark’s screening rooms. In almost two weeks, the GoFundMe has raised close to $40,000, and at least one of the capital campaign rewards has been claimed.
The initial goal of raising $750,000 will fund necessary ADA improvements, including a lift to the second floor, paying back rent and bills owed, and securing rent for the future. Technically, the Ark can’t be evicted thanks to Washington’s eviction moratorium, but the beginning of September saw the building’s owners put it on the market for $2.5 million. McRae pointed out that the Ark is in a historic landmark district, which discourages developers. He also noted that the building is being sold as a movie theater, a condition that works in his favor: who would buy a movie theater when the existing one can’t legally operate during pandemic restrictions?
“The landlords have told me on more than one occasion that if I catch up with back rent and stay current with the lease, they will take the building off the market,” McRae said.
The Ark’s bills started piling up as COVID-19 restrictions forced movie theaters to temporarily shutter in March. The success of a T-shirt fundraiser featuring a graphic of a masked, Godzilla-like movie monster towering over the Ark Lodge, as well as a hand-written letter from a young supporter who raised funds for the theater, convinced McRae to reach out to the community for help. “It seems very sentimental, but what I was feeling at that point when I received that letter, [that’s when] I finally decided ‘I gotta take this chance. I gotta ask the community to invest because this fourth-grader here put $45 dollars in an envelope and mailed it to me saying that they believed in what I’m doing.’”
When McRae took over the theater in 2012, it had been closed for almost two years. The previous owner had modified the building to fit three screening rooms, but it was still only a building that happened to have a movie theater inside of it. Even eight years into his 15-year lease, McRae said the building has never been fully optimized as a proper cinema.
“I’ve never been able to really complete the conversion of an old multi-use building that was built in 1921 as a Masonic Ark Lodge and really complete that conversion into a multiplex movie theater with all the amenities that would come with it being fully ADA accessible. We always knew that there was going to be a point where I was going to have to look at trying to get the funds and close the theater for a certain amount of time to actually reconfigure the building that cannot serve the whole community,” he said.
McRae reasoned: What better time than now, when a temporary closure is mandated, to take on the necessary renovations?
Because of the building’s historic architecture, an elevator is simply not feasible, so a lift is the best option, and will probably be installed somewhere toward the middle of the building on the north wall. Installing a lift usually runs around $20–30 thousand, but the uniqueness of the building means extra consulting and work. The theater also needs a new marquee. The current one above the Ark entrance is constructed out of wood and rests on a canopy that was built in the 1950s. “The marquee is disintegrating. I have to tape the letters up there,” McRae says.
He hopes calling in the community to help support the Ark will make everyone proud of their theater, Seattle’s southernmost moviehouse and the only one serving Rainier Valley. His vision of the Ark’s future includes a transition to a multi-use facility, hosting live entertainment and meetings and converting one area into a lounge where beer, wine, and lighter fare is served. In the context of the city’s recent interest in creating 15-minute communities, McRae sees the Ark as a cultural hub that could serve Columbia City and the Rainier Valley for years to come.
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image: Ark Lodge Cinemas Owner David McRae hopes to get a new marquee. This illustration by Western Neon is one version of what it could look like. “This is a throwback to the classic three-sided marquees that used to be in front of the movie theaters,” McRae said.