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Because the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, the renovation took place under strict parameters. Though Tessier says Arteco has a high standard for every building they put their name on, the Department of the Interior Federal Preservation also had its own guidelines, with a requirement to bring the Fox up to its exact 1931 look and character.
As a result, every drinking fountain, the frosting on each fixture, the chandelier and even the carpet are straight out of 1931.
The only exception, Tessier says, is the neon marquee welcoming visitors and patrons.
“The original ’31 marquee was torn down, so we got a very cool, Art Deco, wrought-iron, Parisian-style one with gobs of neon on it instead,” he explains. “It’s the only piece of neon that the feds let us have, since it’s not consistent with the 1931 design. But otherwise, visually, the building is a step back in time, and you’re really seeing it almost identical to the way it looked when it opened.”
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Of course, if the building were restored to exactly how it was in 1931, it would be completely useless. As it stands today, the Fox boasts all the visual goodies and overall ’30s feel with all the modern conveniences: multiple bars and concession stands, state-of-the-art equipment, rooftop space and adjacent restaurant. The private phone booth that once stood at the top of the staircase? A private ATM booth instead.
A few surprises, good and bad, popped up during the renovation process.
The bad included asbestos, lead and other toxins. The raves in the ’90s had left behind splatters of neon-green and black paint; some graffiti still scrawled on the walls noted who was selling what kind of ecstasy tablets ($ Bizzy D.). There were absolutely no working utilities—and no improvements had been made to them since the ’30s, resulting in an about $1 million tab just to get water, gas and electricity back at the property.
“As we were taking off some of the old roofing, it turned out that the structure holding together the rooms had long since rotted away,” Tessier recalls. “Every single piece of the building had to be removed and started from scratch. Because it got that deep, we did have some cool finds.”
The Fox was once mainly identified by its 81-foot tower with a revolving sign that sat at the corner of the building, making it one of the tallest buildings in the Pomona Valley for decades, visible from as far as Upland and Chino. One of Tessier’s favorite discoveries was in that tower. The old building had bragged about being one of the first buildings in the country to have air-conditioning when it first opened. Before Freon systems were common, the building instead pulled a massive amount of air into it and sent the air through “great-big water-jet nozzles” before being blown into the building.
“You couldn’t really suck that much air to the building without sounding like a freight train, and so they had to put the intake really, really high up,” Tessier explains. “So that’s what the tower is. A massive swamp cooler.”
Since the cooler had been removed and replaced with contemporary air-conditioning systems, there was an amazing, open space in the tower: the perfect dining room for VIP guests.
“We knew it would make for a one-of-a-kind room,” Tessier shares. “Go in there, and you’re looking almost 40 feet straight up inside the room, right under the rotating tower. And for the first time since all the interior was demolished, we had a fantastic moment.”
Another unexpected discovery was the large mural just above the theater’s entrance, where the box office once stood—a grand floral cluster of swirls and leaves in oranges, yellows and silver splashed across the ceiling. No photographic or oral evidence had given any clue to its existence.
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Tessier says he feels “a big emotional payoff” from the project’s completion. “The neighborhood has been staring at that empty building for 30 years,” he says, “and I think we all had a chip on our shoulders about it. We would never be the neighborhood we wanted to be until that building that was our flagship and a great point of entry for everybody visiting the Arts Colony. Finally having that is just a wonderful feeling. I really feel we’ve done what we’ve set out to do and we’re ready for prime time.”
Though it hasn’t always been a happy ending for the chain of historic Fox West Coast theaters. Built in 1925, the Fullerton Fox Theatre in downtown Fullerton was closed and abandoned just 62 years later—and it remains closed. The Fullerton Historic Theatre Foundation has been attempting to raise proper funding for a full restoration of the theater for three years now.
But now that the Fox has been restored to its full glory, it also means an equally hefty amount of apprehensiveness for the Tessier brothers on whether or not the venue can possibly stay afloat in this tough economy. The challenge from day one, says Tessier, was making the project work financially, but they and everyone involved remain more than hopeful.