Located near the University of Washington for over 90 years, The Neptune Theatre has served as a backdrop in the ever-changing urban landscape of Seattle’s University District.
OPENING NIGHT 1921
On Wednesday, November 16, 1921 ushers dressed in Dutch costumes accompanied patrons to their seats and before a full house, the University Commercial Club presented a dedication ceremony. The opening night screening, Serenade (1921), included live musical accompaniment performed on The Neptune’s three-manual Kimball theater organ, said to be the largest Kimball on the west coast. From opening day to present, The Neptune Theatre has remained a social and cultural hub for countless students and residents.
Designed by Henderson Ryan, the architecture of The Neptune Building and Theatre is most similar to a simplified Renaissance Revival style.
Alterations to the building included:
- Major retail storefront modification in the 1920s
- At least three marquee revisions
- Theatre interior remodel in the late 1920s (replacement of the original maritime painted scenes)
- Removal of the Kimball theatre organ in 1943
- Interior remodel and installation of a boat-shaped concession stand in the 1980s
- Hybrid Morton Pipe organ installed and in use from 1988-1998.
Christian and Harriet Brownsfield first settled the general area, now known as the University District, in 1867, calling their acreage “Pioneer Farm.” In 1875, the Brownsfields were granted one of Washington Territory’s rare divorces and in the 1880s, Christian Brownfield sold most of his acres to speculators. After two failed tries by others to develop the farm into a new north-end suburb, first named Lakeside and then Kensington, James A. Moore, in partnership with the Clise Investment Company, platted the Brooklyn Addition on December 19, 1890. The land was cleared in 1891, the same year that the new Washington State legislature campus committee recommended the adjacent educational reserve land section to the east of the new town as the new site for the State University. Lots within Brooklyn sold well and the area was incorporated into the city of Seattle in 1891, along with Magnolia, Wallingford, Green Lake, and most of Ravenna. After annexation, many of the original plat street names were renamed to align with the city’s regular street numbering system.
In 1893, in expectation of serving the new University and reaching the commerce that would grow around it, David Denny ran the northern extension of his Rainier Power and Railway Company streetcar line over a trestle he built at Latona and through Brooklyn northward to William and Louise Beck’s private Ravenna Park. The streetcar line was run up 14th Street, formerly Columbus Street and now University Way N.E. The cornerstone of the “University Building” (now Denny Hall) on the new university campus was laid on July 4, 1894, and students moved to the new “Interlaken Campus” in September 1895.4 In the ensuing years, the area became familiarly known as the University District due to its association with the University, and more particularly with the commercial building and covered streetcar waiting station called “University Station.”
The first motion pictures shown in the University District were probably during the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, in the form of short educational films or t travelogues presented at various individual exhibition buildings. Movie houses followed soon after, with their size and ornamentation increasing as the films themselves became more ambitious and elaborate. Before the advent of sound, five movie theaters opened and operated in Seattle’s University District. The Neptune Theatre opened in November 1921, and survives today, within the three-story mixed-use Neptune Building.
Neptune Historical information excerpted from Neptune Building Landmark Nomination, compiled by Larry E. Johnson, AIA, principal of The Johnson Partnership.
THE FUTURE OF THE NEPTUNE THEATRE
The Neptune Theatre is the only intact survivor of five University District movie houses opened during the silent film era. Operation of The Neptune has transferred through a variety of hands over the years, with the first management team having been led by Jensen von Herberg, then followed by E.R. Fried, who was one of the original second floor tenants in the building. Later the theatre was lead by the Evergreen State Amusement Company; The Sterling Theaters, Inc. managed The Neptune through 1975. The Landmark Theater Group took over operation from 1981-2010. In February 2011, Seattle Theatre Group, the non-profit operators of the historic Paramount and Moore Theatres signed a long-term lease to transform and operate The Neptune Theatre as a performing arts destination for concerts, comedy, community engagements and film.