top of page
  • Ellen Mirro

Henderson Ryan’s Neptune Theater

A couple of years ago Larry heard that the construction of the proposed University District light-rail station might necessitate the demolition of the Neptune Theater. This would have been a community tragedy, and fortunately Sound Transit found a way to preserve the theater by underpinning the foundations during the station construction. But before this decision was made, Larry started on a City of Seattle Landmark Nomination for the Neptune Building and the Neptune Theater, located on the southeastern corner of the intersection of NE 45th Street and Brooklyn Avenue NE.

Neptune Building, ca. 1928 (UofW Libraries, Special Collections)

We finished the Nomination several months ago, but the Nomination has yet to be submitted to the Landmarks and Preservation Board for their review. The Nomination is available for download on the Department of Neighborhoods website:

The Nomination includes an extensive context statement on the development of local theaters (or theatres) prepared by Larry with the assistance of theater historian David Jeffers. You’ll enjoy it if you are interested in local theater history.

We are also delighted to note that the Seattle Theater Group (STG) is now managing the Neptune Theater. STG has retained the character defining features of the theater, giving it a new life as a live entertainment venue.

Neptune Theater, interior, 2012 (TJP)

In researching the Neptune, we discovered that the theater was designed by architect Henderson Ryan, the same architect that designed the Ballard Carnegie Free Public Library. We have also recently completed a Landmark Nomination on the former library.

Henderson Ryan (LEJ photo collection)

Henderson Ryan (Rian) was born near Valhermosa Springs, Morgon County, Alabama on January 16, 1856. Ryan attended the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Kentucky (now University of Kentucky) between 1873 and 1877, and between 1893 and 1894, he worked with architect Herman Hadley as the builder of the Richardsonian “Old Central,” the first building on the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College (Now Oklahoma State University) campus. Ryan relocated to Seattle, WA, in 1898. Throughout his architectural career, Ryan usually worked alone, or in brief professional associations.

Old Central, Oklahoma Agricultural College (unknown source)

Most of what we know of Ryan’s early architectural career is derived from an advertizing supplement printed around 1907, where Ryan provided a list of projects he designed and supervised including the “Moore Building, Waldorf and Roycroft Apartments, the Broadway Building, Swedish Baptist Church, Antonia Apartments, the Raleigh Hotel, Ballard Library, Taylor Apartments, Keene Apartments, and many others including some of the finest homes in Seattle.” He also noted a recently completed design for the ”United States wireless telegraph station near Nome,” that was adopted as a standard design for further wireless stations in Alaska.

Swedish Baptist Church, ca. 1905 (demolished) (Lawton Gowey/Paul Dorpat)

Waldorf Hotel, ca. 1925 (1906, demolished for Convention Center) (UofW Libraries, Special Collections)

Around 1913, theater owners and operators Claude Jensen and John G. von Herberg (aka Peter Coyle), commissioned Ryan to design a lavish theater on First Avenue, just north of Pike Street, that would be primarily devoted primarily to showing motion pictures. The resulting Liberty Theater (1912, demolished 1955), within the three-story Blaine Building, was a symmetrically arranged neo-classically inspired composition faced with light-glazed terra cotta. On the interior grillwork concealed the pipes of what is thought to have been the first large Wurlizer theater organ.

Liberty Theatre, ca. 1916 (Lawton Gowey/Paul Dorpat)

Liberty Theatre, interior ca. 1918 (Paul Dorpat)

For the Liberty, Ryan developed new ramp design that provided easy balcony access while maximizing auditorium space. He patented the ramp in 1916, and used the design in other later theaters.

The success of the Liberty propelled Jensen and von Herberg to the forefront of the rapidly developing motion picture circuit. With Ryan as their architect, and using the basic model developed at the Liberty, the team developed several theaters in Montana, Oregon, and Washington, often under the “Liberty” name.

Great Falls Liberty Theater, ca. 1925 (Puget Sound Theater Organ Society)

Larry fondly remembers watching classic 1960s films such as No Time for Sergeants staring Andy Griffith at the Great Falls, Montana Liberty Theater when his family briefly lived in Great Falls during the early 1960s. The Neptune Theater appears to have been a smaller and stripped-down version of the Rialto Theater Ryan designed for Butte, Montana, sharing the same corner orientation.

Rialto Theater, Butte, MT, ca. 1925 (Puget Sound Theater Organ Society)

Ryan also designed other theaters, most notably the Whiteside Theater (1922, NHR) in Corvallis, Oregon. Ryan retired to California in 1923, and died at age 71, on August 29, 1927.

3 views0 comments


bottom of page