The shuttered Seven Gables Theatre, a building that held cinematic memories for generations of Seattleites, was gutted by fire Thursday afternoon, filling the air with a thick haze for hours.
On Friday morning, the street still smelled of burned rubber; a scent so thick it clings to you. One lane of Northeast 50th Street was closed between Roosevelt Way Northeast and Ninth Avenue Northeast.
A few firefighters surrounding the building were still assessing the damage. And, Seattle Fire Department spokesperson Hilton Almond said, the cause of the fire has been ruled undetermined as crews are unable to safely enter the building.
As residents lamented the loss of the landmark University District movie house, many said they’ve raised questions about the safety and maintenance of the building since it was closed in 2017. Just last month, the property was deemed a public safety hazard and the city demanded its owners properly secure it.
On Thursday, firefighters responded to the corner of Northeast 50th Street and Roosevelt Way Northeast shortly before noon and saw heavy smoke and flames coming from the second floor of the vacant building, according to the Seattle Fire Department. One person who told The Seattle Times they saw the fire early and called 911 said they saw flames in a debris pile near an entrance.
By 1 p.m., officials had called in more resources, with a total of more than 130 firefighters, 14 fire engines, six ladder trucks and additional support responding, according to an afternoon update from the Fire Department. About 20 minutes later, the roof began to cave in.
Crowds of passersby were drawn to the scene as the roof collapsed and crews took a defensive approach — spraying water on the exterior from ladder trucks and other positions to eliminate the risk of flames spreading to nearby buildings.
Fire officials asked people to avoid the area.
Because the theater has been closed for years, Seattle fire spokesperson David Cuerpo said crews “don’t know what the quality of structure is inside. … It’s just not safe for firefighters to go inside yet.”
The Fire Department said the blaze was under control at 2:10 p.m Thursday.
A fire engine and ladder truck were expected to remain on-site overnight to monitor the scene for flareups, according to the Fire Department.
Cal McCune, who grew up in Montlake and lives in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, watched the scene unfold from a nearby corner.
He said he’s probably seen more than 20 movies at Seven Gables over the course of his life, but it had been a while.
“The last movie I saw here was ‘Providence’ in 1980,” he said. “The most disturbing movie of my life.”
McCune said he remembers the building as a “beautiful little theater,” but that it was bound to catch fire eventually.
“It was totally abandoned,” he said. “It was doomed.”
The Gables, a former American Legion hall built in 1925 that became a movie theater in 1976, closed in 2017.
It was owned by art-house cinema operator Landmark Theatres until the chain was sold in 2003 to 2929 Productions LLC, a production company founded by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban.
The building was itself designated a landmark in 2017, one of several in the neighborhood, including the University Library across 50th Street and Seattle Fire Station No. 17 a block to the east.
Ruth Hayler, a former Seven Gables employee who worked at the theater for decades, said the space was known as a warm and welcoming institution in the community that showed all sorts of films, ranging from documentaries to foreign-language to independent movies. A huge chandelier, which retracted into the ceiling as a film was starting, was one of the theater’s best features, she remembered.
“The fact that the theater is no longer there doesn’t mean I no longer have those memories,” Hayler said. “It will always be part of what was one of the good things about Seattle.”
It was a wood-framed, two-and-a-half-story structure with the namesake gabled roof structure and gable features flanking the entrance, and buff-and-brown rug veneer brick cladding, according to a report on its landmark designation.
The 2017 report noted the building’s deteriorated condition.
In March 2019, the building owners’ attorney indicated to the Landmarks Preservation Board the owners were hunting for a developer to buy the theater, continuing the search throughout the rest of the year, according to the board’s meeting minutes.
Then, last month, the city of Seattle issued an emergency order to the building owners following a report from a housing inspector who determined the conditions — including an apparent lack of security — “represent a threat to the safety or health of the occupants or the public, or an imminent hazard to the extent that people in or around the building are in serious jeopardy of life or limb.” The inspector specifically noted the building hadn’t been adequately secured against unauthorized entry, was surrounded by overgrown vegetation and littered with debris and trash.
The city’s order required the building to close no later than 12 p.m. on Nov. 12 and remain closed for the foreseeable future. If no action was taken, the city threatened to fine the owners $1,000 per day. It’s unclear whether the building owners took action following the emergency order.
Neither the building owners nor their attorney immediately responded to a request for comment.
Richard Anderson, who was at the fire scene and lives around the corner on Ninth Avenue, said he used to frequent Seven Gables when it was open. While he has fond memories of the funky, independent building, he also expected it to ignite at some point.
“It was sad to see it close and sad to see the owners abandon it,” he said. “And then sad to see it broken into and all the graffiti.”
“It’s a spectacle to see the number of firefighters that came out,” he added. “And it’s surprising to see how long it’s taking to get under control.”
Simone Barron, who lives across the street from the theater, watched the flames with some frustration, sharing the same sentiments as her neighbors who felt the blaze was preventable. She said she’d been warning the city about the abandoned building for months, emailing them whenever she saw people tear down the fence and break in.
“I told them,” Barron said. “And now this.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Katherine K. Long contributed to this report.