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Palo Alto Historic Buildings Inventory

456 University Avenue

New Varsity Theater

inventory photo May 2015 photo
Inventory photo Photo taken May 2, 2015


The following is from the Historic Buildings Inventory as revised in 1978 / 1985:

Physical appearance:   This fine small theater has an arcade and courtyard between the entrance façade and the theater proper. Although the outline of the façade is Mission Revival, there is some Spanish Renaissance decorative detailing. the handsome neon is no longer intact and some alterations have occurred in the street level façade and courtyard during recent remodeling to accommodate a restaurant. The flanking buildings were designed to complement the theater and unify the street front.

Several types of original iron lighting fixtures are still intact. [1988]

Significance:  This is a fine example of a rapidly disappearing type of building, flanked by compatible commercial structures to produce an effective streetscape The original Varsity Theater was located from 1911 onward at University and Ramona, owned by Frank LeSuer and T. H. Betts. In 1927, Ellis J.  Arkush, with Le Suer, acquired the theater as part of plans to develop a chain of Peninsula motion-picture houses, starting with the relocation (then owned by Dr. Charles Strub).

The theater has been in continuous service although in recent years, the decline of the motion picture audience has led to an effort to capture a new clientele with a restaurant, and with performances by touring rock-music groups. Stylistically, i has been compared to the Fox Arlingon Theater in Santa Barbara (Woodbridge, et al.)

Note: The Varsity Theater closed its doors in 1994. It was the served as a Borders book store that preserved much of the original auditorium configuration of alcoves and lobby space. After Borders closed, a major restoration, the original auditorium is now used as meeting space for the Blue Bottle coffee shop in the original lobby/snack bar area. The photos below were taken between 1991 and 2015.


1994 arcade
1994 photo
2015 photo
fountain 2015
2015 photo
detail 2015 detail
1994 photo 2006 photo
display window inside stairs
closing day
Photo taken July 7, 1994 closing day Location map

This house was built in and is a Category 1 on the Historic Buildings Inventory. The architect was Reid Brothers of San Francisco and the builder was McDonald and Kahn of San Francisco, iron work by from Fair Mfg. Co. of San Francisco and the roof and tile form Molett and Peterson of San Francisco. The property measures 30 by 200 feet.

Sources: Palo Alto Times 9/11/1911 reprinted 9/11/1936; 10/2/26, 1/25/27, 1/29/27; Palo Alto Weekly 10/16/85;  Sally and John Woodbridge, et al., A Guide to Architecture in San Francisco and Northern California (Peregrine Smith Co., Santa Barbara, 1973), p. 155-6.


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