The transformation of an abandoned, century-old movie theater into a highly visible, alternative performance space for American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), San Francisco’s preeminent nonprofit theater company is a major milestone in the regeneration an inner-city neighborhood.
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. A key design challenge of the project was how to transform a single-purpose building – a 725-seat, single-auditorium cinema – into flexible, multi-purpose one. A.C.T.’s diverse programmatic needs included spaces for live theater and other performing arts, a Master of Fine Arts program, youth classes, rehearsals, new play development workshops, public events that range from casual to formal, concessions, and stage and event support. The redefined 20,000-square-foot space now houses a three-story lobby and gathering space with a ground floor café, a proscenium theater with moveable risers that can seat 175 in a cabaret format or 283 in a traditional format, and a black box theater that can accommodate 90-120 seats in varying arrangements, as well as be used for rehearsals, classes, workshops, and events. The program is inserted within the shell of The Strand, overlaying essential modern theater elements on top of the raw backdrop of the original building.
The design of the Strand creates inspiring civic theater out of the act of theater-going itself. The restored storefront and façade dramatically opens the lobby to the street and sidewalk, energizing both the building and the surrounding neighborhood. Located in the Central Market Community Benefit District between booming tech and residential redevelopment to the southwest, existing cultural and civic institutions in Civic Center, and popular retail and tourism destinations to the northeast, the restored theater represents a key component to the regeneration of this once vital part of the city. The project also 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.
The lobby was conceived as a dynamic stage set where theater students and audience members are performers, with dramatic, cantilevered stairs and balconies as their backdrop. The lobby is activated by the box office, a café, and an open-plan area for pre-show gatherings. Double-height windows offer dramatic views from the street into the lobby and from the lobby toward Market Street. The centerpiece of this space is a suspended, perforated LED screen that recalls the building’s long history as a cinema. The nearly 500-square-foot screen displays video and images that extend the theater experience into the lobby before performances, as well as serves as an exhibition space for local video art. The screen transforms the character of the building, bringing the activity of the theater into the lobby and projecting it to the sidewalk and across the street to UN Plaza.
Complementing the old with the new, the renovation strategy preserved or rehabilitated as much of the building’s original structure and ornamentation as possible. Over 81 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 100-year 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. Decorative glass fiber reinforced concrete panels, which were cast from molds of 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 renovations took place.
A graphic identity was developed for The Strand – one clearly identifiable as A.C.T., a 50-year-old institution, but tailored to reflect the new space and its mission. Focused on new work, emerging artists, arts education, and community outreach, the Strand’s identity had to convey the unadorned immediacy of experimental theater and reflect the gritty, transitional aspects of its surrounding neighborhood.
The stencil, a staple of backstage labeling, was used to express the direct, stripped-down simplicity of the Strand’s space and program. This theme was carried throughout the building’s environmental graphics and signage, including the exterior blade and canopy, interior wayfinding, and donor wall. Lettering and pictograms were painted directly on the walls, or cut into metal sheets to resemble industrial stencil sets.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM) is one of the leading architecture, engineering, interior design, and urban planning firms in the world, with an 80-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 1996. The firm maintains offices in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., London, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Mumbai, and Abu Dhabi.