The Lincoln Theater was one of the premiere blues and jazz venues on 7th Street. Surrounded by shops and clubs, the theater hosted legends like Billie Holiday and Paul Robeson among others, adding proof to Tom Bowden’s claim that 7th Street in the 1940s and ’50s was “Harlem West.”
The theater was built between 1919 and 1921, a time when nickelodeons were a popular form of entertainment. The Lincoln replaced two nickelodeons when it was built – it started as a vaudeville stage, before becoming a showplace for films, live music and community events.
While shows at theaters in downtown Oakland cost 25 or 50 cents, the Lincoln charged just 10 cents. It was a neighborhood theater that, according to one local, had the best popcorn around. Decorated in moldings and tiled fixtures, the theater probably rivaled many classic movie houses built in the same era. Sadly, few photographs exist of the theater in its glory days.
In 1962, the Damascus Mission Baptist Church owned the theater and leased it for $200 a month. At that time, a property appraiser noted its rundown condition. By the time artist and investor Lucy Lee Lequin purchased it and several surrounding properties along the same block of 7th Street, the theater was filled with squatters and garbage, and most of its architectural elements had been destroyed.
Lequin proved to be an ardent advocate of 7th Street’s history and restoration, but her attempts to revive the theater resulted in the roof’s collapse and subsequent tearing down of a property that proved beyond repair. Despite the setback, Lequin plans to build a new Lincoln Theater façade to match the old one.
In 2005, Lequin was able to get a block-long strip of 7th Street designated as a historic preservation area, ensuring that the period buildings from 7th Street’s legacy will endure. She was unable to get a preservation designation for all of 7th Street, however, because so many of the original buildings have already been torn down and replaced with modern ones.