San Francisco: The renovation of The Strand, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM), is a major milestone for San Francisco and the city’s preeminent theater company. American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) commissioned SOM to resurrect a nearly 100-year-old cinema to serve as an intimate second stage for A.C.T.’s full-staged productions, an education center, and a community gathering space. Overlaying modern theater and architectural components on top of the raw backdrop of the original building, SOM’s design of The Strand inserts the diverse program into the shell of the existing structure, restored the facade, and strives to create inspiring civic theater out of the act of theater-going itself.
Following a soft opening in May, a public opening in June with the West Coast premiere of Love and Information, and the completion of construction in July, The Strand is already supporting the mission of A.C.T., an almost 50-year-old nonprofit arts organization. Located on Market Street between 7th and 8th Streets, three blocks from City Hall, the project is a highly visible symbol of change in a neighborhood that is recovering from decades of disinvestment. By cultivating the arts, activating an abandoned building, and stimulating economic development, the project has been critical to the ongoing success of the Office of the Mayor’s Central Market/Tenderloin Strategy for neighborhood revitalization.
Born of Community Partnership
The scope of The Strand’s renovation was complex and included adaptive reuse, historic preservation and restoration, structural retrofit, and the development of a sub-branded graphic identity. SOM’s San Francisco office collaborated with A.C.T. and their representative Equity Community Builders to develop the design, applying the expertise of its architects, structural engineers, and graphic designers in the firm’s signature integrated, multidisciplinary approach. SOM and A.C.T. also assembled an expert project team that included Plant Construction Company, a Bay Area-based general contractor; Page & Turnbull, a California-based historic preservation and architecture firm; Shalleck Collaborative, a San Francisco-based theater planning and design consultant; Charles M. Salter Associates, Inc., a San Francisco-based consulting firm on acoustics, telecommunications, and security; WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, a San Francisco-based mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineering design firm; and PritchardPeck Lighting, a San Francisco-based architectural lighting design firm.
A key design challenge of the project was how to transform a single-purpose building—a 725-seat, single-auditorium cinema—into a model of versatile functionality. A.C.T.’s diverse programmatic needs included spaces for live theater and other performing arts, a Master of Fine Arts program through A.C.T.’s actor-training Conservatory, youth classes, rehearsals, new play development workshops, public events that range from casual to formal, concessions, and stage and event support. SOM’s design met these requirements by inserting three flexible public spaces into the shell of The Strand:
– a three-story lobby and gathering space with a ground floor cafe
– a proscenium theater with moveable risers that can seat 175 in a cabaret format or 283 in a traditional format
– a black box theater that can accommodate 90-120 seats in varying arrangements, as well as be used for rehearsals, classes, workshops, and events.
These spaces are available to partnering arts organizations at no cost through A.C.T.’s Community Space-Sharing Initiative. In the first four months of operation, The Strand has helped A.C.T. increase its capacity to fulfill its mission of nurturing the art of live theater through productions, actor training, and community engagement.
“It was our goal from the beginning to create a thrilling public space that would not only invite theatergoers inside but truly transform a neighborhood,” said Carey Perloff, Artistic Director of A.C.T. “SOM was a remarkable and patient collaborator who realized this vision through a deep investigation of A.C.T.’s needs and a flexible approach to the complicated problems of repurposing an existing space. The results are beyond what we could have dreamed.”
Reversing 100 Years of Decline
The Strand’s history has paralleled that of its surrounding neighborhood. Built in 1917, the theater is a remnant of “The Great White Way,” San Francisco’s theater row. Originally christened the Jewel Theater, the 1,200-seat, single-auditorium cinema was designed by local architect Emory M. Frasier to present silent films with live music accompaniment. Ornamented with a cast stone relief facade and wide marquee, the four-story, 20,000 square-foot, steel and concrete building also originally hosted first- and second-floor retail spaces. Renamed the Strand Theater in 1928, the movie house operated almost continuously, in various forms and through numerous owners, until 2003, when, after a police raid of the then porn theater, it was abandoned to squatters and decay. During this time, the neighborhood lost its commercial draw and gradually declined. When A.C.T. purchased The Strand in 2012, the City of San Francisco had begun to aggressively promote strategies to encourage property investment and economic development in Central Market.
“This project started with a 100-year-old building that had been a workhorse motion picture house. It had good bones and a great site on Market Street,” said Michael Duncan, SOM Design Director and lead architect on the renovation project. “The simple frame of the original building gave us our cue on how to reconfigure and upgrade it. The design goal was to preserve the old, and insert the new—to transform the Strand from a derelict eyesore into a dynamic home for live theater. It took the collective effort of a focused team to bring the Strand back to life.”
Reactivating the Street
SOM’s design concept for the Strand was driven by the desire to expose the activity of the building and bring life back to a desolate section of San Francisco’s Market Street. The plan of the building, from how people move within it to where the new structural shear walls were placed, is organized around the goal of revealing the creativity embodied within the building. This is accomplished by articulating a series of frames that showcase the building’s performance aspect.
The triple-height lobby of The Strand falls at the center of this ambition. Inspired by the idea of engaging the audience as performers, the design of the lobby creates a stage for theatergoers to see and be seen. Resembling a multilevel theatrical set, three stories of exposed perforated metal stairways and cantilevered balconies surround a grand 60,000-cubic-foot void on three sides. Throughout the entire day, the lobby is a busy intersection for all users— including audience members, students, staff, actors, and cafe patrons. Large storefront windows put this activity on display to passersby.
In the center of the lobby hangs a nearly 500-square-foot, perforated LED screen that is visible from the street. Referencing The Strand’s cinematic history, the screen serves as an audience engagement tool and a venue for locally produced video art either commissioned by A.C.T. or curated by the San Francisco Arts Commission. Composed of 126 separate LED tiles, this is the first permanent interior installation of this technology, which is manufactured by Luxmax for touring concerts and other temporary events.
The lobby’s design also represents a creative solution to a difficult structural challenge. The site of The Strand is located adjacent to the underground structures of the BART and Muni rail systems. In order to reduce the foundation loads in the zone impacting the underground transit infrastructure, SOM’s multidisciplinary design team decided to selectively demolish some of the original concrete floors to create this grand entryway.
By dramatically opening up the lobby to the street, The Strand creates inspiring civic theater out of that act of theatergoing itself. An estimated 100,000 people will pass through this space during the theater’s first year of operation, bringing new life to San Francisco’s Central Market neighborhood, an area being targeted by the City of San Francisco for economic revitalization.
Balancing Past and Future
Complementing the old with the new, SOM’s renovation strategy overlaid modern theater and architectural components on the raw backdrop of the century-old cinema, and preserved or rehabilitated as much of the building’s original structure and ornamentation as possible. Over 80 percent of the building’s existing superstructure, including the steel frame, exterior walls, ceiling, and roof, was reused and reinforced. Historically sensitive seismic upgrades were also made, particularly to protect the theater from any pounding from the neighboring building that might occur during earthquakes.
The design also pays tribute to the long history of the theater. This is most evident on the exterior of The Strand. The facade’s cast stone relief ornament and metal cornices were cleaned and patched; and the third- and fourth-story multi-light wood sash windows were repaired. On the ground floor, the original recessed entry way was eliminated. New full-height storefront windows were installed; and decorative glass fiber reinforced concrete panels, which were cast from molds made from the existing relief, were installed to extend the existing ornamentation to the ground. A new steel and glass canopy that honors the original 1917 marquee and a vertical blade sign that references the theater’s exterior in the late 1920s project over the sidewalk.
Inside, the auditorium’s original plaster walls, vertical wall pilasters, coved ceiling molding, and decorative ceiling air grilles were retained and restored in the new proscenium theater space. The metal-framed pink-neon letters from the cinema’s marquee, installed in 1959, were salvaged and incorporated in the design of the new lobby cafe. Ghosts of the original cinema can be seen in the lobby—the exposed raw cement of the eastern wall and an outline incorporated into the flooring that honors the location and dimensions of the former grand onyx staircase. In backstage areas, reclaimed graffiti, created by individuals who illegally inhabited the building following the close of operations in 2003, showcase the personalities who called the boarded-up theater and the surrounding neighborhood home for the decade before the renovations took place.
State-of-the-art technology was incorporated into each space. Both theaters have modern lighting systems by Electronic Theater Controls and top-of-the-market loudspeakers by Meyer Sound, with digital control on a Yamaha console that provides the ability for both live sound mixing and recorded music playback. The lobby features an innovative use of LED technology, and perforated materials that help bring natural light into the heart of the building. The historic building’s windows were reglazed with insulated glass, and new mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems were chosen to reduce water and power consumption. Promoting environmental quality and economic vitality through the design, construction, and operation of the building, the Strand is targeting LEED® Silver certification.
To highlight the difference in identity between A.C.T.’s historic home, the 1,040-seat Geary Theater, and their new alternative venue The Strand, SOM developed a unique graphic identity for the project. Inspired by the grittier qualities of the theater’s neighborhood, the cutting-edge quality of the venue’s artistic focus, and the historic practice of using stencils to label theatrical sets and equipment, SOM’s graphics studio, led by Associate Director Lonny Israel, customized the nonprofit’s existing brand typeface to look like a stencil. This theme was carried throughout the building’s environmental graphics and signage, including the exterior blade and canopy, interior wayfinding, and a donor wall. Lettering was painted directly on the walls or cut into sturdy metal sheets to resemble industrial stencil sets.
A Project That Stands Out
The Strand is a small building that is making a big impact, both visually and civically. The facade has been painted a custom shade of red that cannot be ignored. Inspired by the vivacious personality of A.C.T.’s Artistic Director Carey Perloff, this red was chosen to highlight the historically preserved pieces of the facade, vibrate against the blue-green backdrop of the San Francisco Federal Building, and create a memorable spectacle that leaves a lasting impression.
The Strand also stands out as a watershed for the economic regeneration of San Francisco’s Central Market. The project serves as an anchor for the ongoing effort by the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, the Planning Department, and the Office of the City Administrator to relocate or expand cultural organizations into the neighborhood. With The Strand, A.C.T. joins Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, Burning Man, CounterPULSE, and PianoFight, among others, in calling this neighborhood home. The project’s location makes it a crucial lynchpin between ongoing business and residential redevelopment to the southwest, like Twitter’s Market Square and Dolby Laboratories headquarters, existing cultural and civic institutions in Civic Center, like Davies Symphony Hall and the War Memorial Opera House, and booming retail and tourism destinations to the northeast, like the Westfield Center and Moscone Center.
“I am thrilled to see A.C.T. join the Central Market community where performing art institutions are vital in our efforts to transform the neighborhood,” said Mayor Edwin M. Lee at the groundbreaking in 2013. “The Strand Theater will provide our City’s residents and visitors with a world-class entertainment venue that will engage with the local community through arts and education, while creating jobs for our City’s residents and contributing to the diverse economic vitality of the Central Market neighborhood.”
A new jewel in SOM’s portfolio, The Strand highlights the diversity of the firm’s recent work. The theater joins a list of celebrated cultural buildings, including Dallas City Performance Hall, Chicago Symphony Center’s Orchestra Hall, and Chicago’s Civic Opera House Renovation. The project also joins a collection of high-profile West Coast renovations, including: The Desmond in Los Angeles, Moscone Center, 680 Folsom, California State Supreme Court and U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco, and Stanford University’s Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery.
About Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) is one of the leading architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban planning firms in the world, with a 75-year reputation for design excellence and a portfolio that includes some of the most important architectural accomplishments of the 20th and 21st centuries. Since its inception, SOM has been a leader in the research and development of specialized technologies, new processes and innovative ideas, many of which have had a palpable and lasting impact on the design profession and the physical environment. The firm’s longstanding leadership in design and building technology has been honored with more than 1,700 awards for quality, innovation, and management. The American Institute of Architects has recognized SOM twice with its highest honor, the Architecture Firm Award—in 1962 and again in 1996. The firm maintains offices in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., London, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Abu Dhabi.
About American Conservatory Theater
American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) nurtures the art of live theater through dynamic productions, intensive actor training in its conservatory, and an ongoing engagement with its community. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Carey Perloff, A.C.T. embraces its responsibility to conserve, renew, and reinvent the rich theatrical traditions that are our collective legacy, while exploring new artistic forms and new communities. A commitment to the highest standards informs every aspect of A.C.T.’s creative work. For more information about A.C.T., go to www.act-sf.org.