The original 1997 location of Austin’s now-national Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain is currently in an advanced stage of demolition near the southeast corner of West Fifth and Colorado Streets in downtown Austin, as part of work to clear the area for the upcoming 415 Colorado office and residential tower project by local developers Stonelake Capital Partners. We casually noted this in our article about downtown demolitions published earlier this week, but figured it deserved a little more attention — so here’s a brief rundown on the past life of 409 Colorado Street.
Like Whole Foods, the Drafthouse is an Austin-grown brand that’s blown up so thoroughly on the national stage it’s easy to forget just how humbly it started. In 1994, Rice University graduates Tim and Karrie League first tried their hand at opening a theater in Bakersfield, California, but the husband and wife team relocated to Austin two years later after struggling to secure a liquor license for the venue — score one for us in the California/Texas rivalry, since beer and cocktails alongside films now represents the backbone of the Alamo brand.
The first Alamo Drafthouse Cinema was a hand-built single-screen operation, opened in 1997 on the second floor of a warehouse dating back to 1920 at 409 Colorado Street then being used as a parking garage, serving the requisite beer and wine alongside a full food menu including pizzas and sandwiches. It’s old hat these days, but the concept of a movie theater serving decent food and booze instead of popcorn and soda was genuinely radical at the time, especially since the Alamo’s taste in second-run and vintage showings actually catered to adults — the inaugural double feature of its grand opening on May 24, 1997 included the Coen brothers’ screwball comedy “Raising Arizona” and cult mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap.”
Starting with folding chairs and slowly upgrading its digs to the iconic red cupholder chairs you’ll still occasionally find on the resale market, the Alamo quickly grew beyond its single-screen birth, with new locations opening through the early 2000s. Rising rents eventually prompted the Leagues to relocate to the historic Alamo Ritz location on East Sixth Street in 2007, leaving the 409 Colorado building as a landmark only for former patrons in the know.
A number of bars and clubs operated out of the space until 2017, when local design firm Forgecraft Architecture converted the building into offices on behalf of Walmart Technologies, which occupied the site until recently. At the ripe old age of 102, the warehouse is nearly no more, with most of its upper level where the Alamo’s screenings took place now demolished. It’s certainly not a sad story, since the Drafthouse is doing just fine all over the country — but for locals familiar with the theater’s downsized roots, it’s the end of an era for one small artifact of Austin’s past.
Today, Alamo Drafthouse has dozens of locations across the United States, with many more to come. Each location is managed with the same dedication and careful regard to film-inspired food and drink, crystal-clear visual and audio presentation, and deliriously fun special events, all inspired by those first years at Colorado Street.