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Sunset on the domes: how Silicon Valley is losing its futuristic past

These space-age theaters will be reduced to rubble

Sean Hollister a senior editor and founding member of The Verge who covers gadgets, games, and toys. He spent 15 years editing the likes of CNET, Gizmodo, and Engadget.

Silicon Valley wasn’t always the place where technology was born and bred. It used to be one of the world’s largest orchards, where an estimated one-third of the entire country’s fruit was harvested, packed, and canned. Roughly 50 years ago, however, a new culture started to emerge. As the interstate highways rolled out, as we chose to go to the moon, the valley’s architecture began to reflect that freedom of the open road and that boundless optimism for the future. Space-age symbols appeared on businesses designed to attract people driving cars with rocket tail fins. Wing-shaped roofs and starburst-laden signs became common themes.

Now, Silicon Valley is tearing down that vision of the future to make room for reality.

On November 24th, 1964, the giant Century 21 theater opened in San Jose, California, right next to the famous Winchester Mystery House. It was the first of many dome-shaped theaters designed by prominent local architect Vincent G. Raney, including its next-door neighbors the Century 22 and Century 23. The three theaters are some of San Jose’s largest, most iconic remaining examples of mid-century architecture, but they’re unlikely to remain. Two weeks ago, they screened their final films, and the city will soon contemplate demolishing them to clear the way for new development.


Design for a Movie Theater 4-Plex, circa 1968. (Vincent Raney / Art Linson / Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Dollar for dollar, that decision would make plenty of sense. Property values in San Jose have skyrocketed since theater company Syufy Enterprises first signed a 50-year lease on the land. Syufy wasn’t likely to pay the difference, because it’s been trying to get out of the theater business for years. In 2006, it sold its huge Century Theaters chain to Cinemark, and liquidated all its Cinemark stock just a few years later. Other uses of the land would also likely be more efficient. Despite only housing six screens, the three domes and their huge parking lot take up a tremendous amount of space — space that could offer more jobs and more housing in a different configuration. Even the architect’s own granddaughter claims she wouldn’t have wanted to keep the theaters around at the expense of progress.

But the issue isn’t as clear-cut as it initially seems. Vincent Raney built the domes on his family’s own land, and that granddaughter stands to profit from the transaction. Faced with the closure of a beloved institution, some San Jose residents are trying to save the domes, arguing that they have a place in history. They’re attempting to have the theaters declared historic landmarks, which would make demolishing them far more difficult. And even though the oldest theater hasn’t quite reached its 50th birthday — a milestone for landmark status — there may be some merit to the idea.


The Century 21, 22, and 23 marquee in 1967. Note the custom lettering.

Silicon Valley and Hollywood had a special relationship

"I have a lot of experiences with buildings where people say they’re not important, they’re not historic, they’re not significant," says Alan Hess, a local architecture critic, historian, and recognized expert on the mid-century "Googie" style that the domes represent. "But they are, for many reasons." While you might think of historic landmarks as places that existed long before you were born, often in the urban center of a city, Hess argues those qualifications may not make sense for Silicon Valley. The theaters represent an important historic period when San Jose was becoming a multi-centered suburban metropolis — "That has been a difficult concept for many planners and city officials to grasp," says Hess — and San Jose is a relatively young city compared to its peers. The dome theaters were the first buildings on what was previously an empty patch of land, and there simply hasn’t been time for them to grow old yet.

Besides, Silicon Valley and the movie industry had a special relationship. "When you look back to the ’60s when the Valley had become a magnet for young people wanting to get into tech, what are the things they did? Most of them, whether they were in tech or not, went to the movies," says Franklin Maggi, an architectural historian who helped review the Century 21's nomination for the National Register of Historic Places. And as Hollywood began to produce big blockbusters like Jaws, the Valley became an important test market for new films. "San Jose represented a very broad-based market that Hollywood could use to test out a movie in its early days," says the historian.

In fact, the Century 22 was one of the very first theaters to show Star Wars in 1977, and both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are said to have personally favored the domes to show off their new films. Spielberg was actually a senior at the local Saratoga High School the year the Century 21 opened, and later saw shows at the domed Century 25 on Saratoga Avenue. Reportedly, Spielberg was also the one who came up with the idea that Ralph McQuarrie’s spaceship in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial should feature a dome, and the resulting spaceship bears an uncanny resemblance to the dome theaters lit up at night. While we couldn’t reach Spielberg for comment, his famed co-producer Kathleen Kennedy offered a few words: "Some of the most exciting preview screens I can remember of our films were held at the Century dome theaters."

But just because the cinema was important to Silicon Valley, should that mean these particular buildings deserve special treatment? That’s the issue before the San Jose City Council, which will eventually make the final decision on whether to keep or raze the theaters. "We’ll hear from residents repeatedly that this is where I saw Star Wars, or Jaws, or any number of movie premieres... but you have tens of thousands of theaters across the nation that can say the very same things," says San Jose city council member Pete Constant. But on the other side of the aisle Don Rocha — who admits he snuck into the theaters more than once as a kid — argues that the domes are unique. When Mayor Chuck Reed asked the State Historic Resources Commission to deny historic landmark status, city-council member Rocha took a stand, pointing out biases and inaccuracies in the mayor’s letter that favored the landowner’s position.


Unfortunately for the preservationists, Rocha isn’t completely correct about the domes being unique. While the Century 21 may be the oldest, most complete Raney dome, these dome theaters aren’t the only ones in existence. Not only was Vincent G. Raney a rather prolific architect, building dome theaters across the western United States for roughly 30 years; he originally took that idea from the plans for the Los Angeles Cinerama Dome, which opened the prior year. Since the Cinerama Dome has already been preserved, it’s not like domes are about to go extinct.

"If all the other domes across the nation had been bulldozed..."

"If all the other domes across the nation had been bulldozed and this was the last one, maybe that might change my mind," says Constant. "I don't see these rising to that level where they're so unique and so iconic and in such limited supply that we have to tell someone else who owns the property that we're going to deprive you of your right to improve your property," he adds.

Still, a dome in Los Angeles — or, say, Colorado — is little comfort to Silicon Valley residents who are watching their domes disappear. The Century 24 dome was razed a few months ago, and both the Century 25 and a domed theater in nearby Pleasant Hill were demolished last year. Notably, two of those domes were torn down by SyWest Development, a division of the same Syufy Enterprises that originally commissioned Raney to build the theaters. And although another Raney dome theater in southern San Jose was successfully converted into a church in the mid ’90s, the pastor tells us that Syufy intends to raze it after a few more years.

"This period, this style is in danger."

But Silicon Valley residents aren’t just concerned with what they’re losing, but what they’re gaining in return. The domes live in a relatively historic pocket of San Jose that’s slowly getting overrun by fancy shopping malls. On one side of the street, there’s the Winchester Mystery House, the Century dome theaters, and the Flames (formerly Bob’s Big Boy) diner — another period piece. But the other side of the street is home to Santana Row and Valley Fair, two upscale shopping malls that have crowded and gentrified the area. Will San Jose lose the domes and diner to make way for yet another mall? That’s the fear, because the owner of Santana Row — Federal Realty — just leased the land underneath those properties.


Winchester Ranch.

And nobody’s more worried than the senior citizens living right behind the domes, in the Winchester Ranch mobile home community. In 1975, Mark Cali converted his parents’ former orchard into a mobile home park, which he and his wife Barbara built into a beautiful, secluded senior community over the years. But when Mark died and the city designated the greater Winchester area as a potential "Urban Village," his descendants decided to put the land up for sale — despite the fact that Barbara and her friends still live there. "You guys had better pray for me and hope that I’m still alive next year, because when I die this is going to stop," Mark was said to joke. It’s not so funny now that the retired community is facing eviction from their homes. They see local development as the tyranny of a new generation — which may describe the Syufy and Raney family situations as well. The descendants of theater magnate Ray Syufy and architect Vincent Raney could be seen as throwing away their family’s shared legacy to make a quick buck. Syufy’s love of the theater extended to his own dome theater-shaped house, another Raney design. And, as discussed, the Raneys stand to profit from new development.

But it’s no longer Raneys’ and Syufys’ business what happens to the domes. It’s all up to the city and the developers now. And even if the domes get replaced by a third giant mall, that could still have a positive impact on the community. Though architect Alan Hess believes the Century 21 should be preserved, he actually praised the Santana Row shopping mall across the street when it first debuted. "Sure, if you scratch Santana Row you’ll still find a mall," he wrote in 2007, but he was impressed that its architects could "channel consumerism’s impulses into the creation of a living, breathing neighborhood," too. Seven years later, Hess says he still feels the same way, but he challenges Federal Realty to be just as creative this time around, and thinks that both they and the city could benefit by incorporating one of the domes.

Nobody we spoke to seemed particularly optimistic that any of the domes would be saved — even one of the men leading the charge. "Development tends to rule San Jose," says Brian Grayson, director of San Jose’s Preservation Action Council. "The city tends to pretty much say yes to what anybody wants as long as they’re coming through with a development."


The Century 24 dome theater, mid-demolition. (Kym Mulligan) Watch the dome's final moments here.

And yet, there’s an intriguing chance that things could be different this time around, because the city is aware that it’s developing a reputation for losing historic buildings. Both IBM Building 25 (home of the first hard drive) and one of San Jose’s earliest Victorian houses burned down during prolonged arguments about whether they should be preserved. "You might see this community and the Historic Landmarks Commission throw down on this issue, not really because this is the most compelling building, but because we haven't stepped up on a number of other opportunities," says council member Rocha.

As San Jose assistant planning director Laurel Prevetti reads off a list of the qualifications for city historic landmark status, it certainly seems like the Century 21 could make the cut. It wasn’t the site of a historic event or the birthplace of an important person, but you could definitely argue it portrays "the environment of a group of people in an era of history characterized by a distinctive architectural style." Perhaps it exemplifies "the cultural, economic, social, or historical heritage of the city of San Jose," too.

Prevetti says that for the moment, there’s no danger to the domes. City ordinances ensure that the historic landmark process will run its course before any demolition can commence, and there will be plenty of opportunities for the public to comment over the next few months. Allegedly they’re being watched by city employees for potential fires, too.

It’s not clear whether the capital of Silicon Valley will set aside its incessant drive for progress to preserve this small part of its history, but there’s still a chance to do so.

"We've lost a tremendous amount, and San Jose specifically has lost a tremendous amount of this part of its history," Hess states. "This period, this style is in danger. If we do not watch out, it could disappear entirely from the city."

Historical photographs property of Syufy Enterprises. See more at Cinematour.

Bob's Big Boy architectural render courtesy Armet Davis Newlove Architects.

Other renderings reprinted with permission from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

See more: Silence of the Domes: 1964-2014