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Updated War Memorial Veterans Building will shine inside and out

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An architect’s draft shows the design for the San Francisco Opera’s new Diane B. Wilsey Center, a $21 million retrofitting and restoration of the War Memorial Veterans Building. (Courtesy Rendering)
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As the scaffolding comes down, the War Memorial Veterans Building seems to shine, having shed decades of grime. (Or, to please the landlord, “patina.”)

But the new look is only skin-deep. Under it are enormous changes, improvements and new facilities vital to The City’s performing arts. The 1932 Beaux-Arts twin to the Opera House next door has undergone a two-year, $128 million seismic retrofitting and major restoration, and is nearing the end of a $1 billion project making all Civic Center buildings as safe as possible. The new building is expected to open in about three months, though an official date has not yet been set.

Unlike the City Hall’s “roller-skating” base-isolated retrofitting technology, the Veterans Building uses a fixed-base concrete shear wall scheme, the same as the Opera House. The building is expected to fare even better in a Loma Prieta-scale earthquake than it did in 1989. Electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems have been replaced, and the building is equipped with the latest fire alarm and sprinkler systems. There are also more and better elevators and restroom facilities — all lamentably insufficient before.

The building serves many purposes — including those of one of its original tenants, the American Legion War Memorial Commission, which coordinates use of the veterans’ portion of the venue for Legion posts and “patriotic organizations” — but artists, art organizations and audiences have felt the biggest burden, missing the 900-seat Herbst Theatre during the renovation.

Firmly rooted in history books for serving as the place where the United Nations Charter was signed in 1945, the auditorium was renovated in 1977 as a gift to The City from the Herbst Foundation and renamed Herbst Theatre. For decades, it was a major venue for such organizations as San Francisco Performances, Philharmonia Baroque, New Century Chamber Orchestra, City Arts & Lectures and others. During the restoration closure, the organizations had to make do in temporary homes in the vicinity, most significantly smaller.

When Herbst reopens at the end of September (an exact date is pending), artists and audiences will find a new and great facility. Formerly suffering from lack of basic stage and backstage facilities — dressing rooms, storage space, even restrooms — the new theater will have them all in spades.

Taking over the north-south corridor between the back of the theater and the wall facing Franklin Street, the new backstage provides everything expected in a theater, and the stage is expanded and modernized. In the hall, the ugly side boxes have been angled so viewers can look ahead instead of sideways, and the boxes look a lot better, too.

Looking down on the audience, the familiar huge Frank Brangwyn murals remain, cleaned up, celebrating the centennial of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition from which they came — and now appraised at $4 million.

Additionally, the building will have an important new performing-arts heavyweight partner: San Francisco Opera’s Diane B. Wilsey Center. The $21 million project takes substantial basement space for storage, and its fourth floor — once home to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — will house offices, costumes, education facilities, archives, and the 299-seat Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, which will present chamber operas and recitals. The new theater will also be available for rental.

The opera’s general director, David Gockley, who is retiring next year after a landmark decade of leadership, has advocated the project with all his might: “Creating this wonderful asset will be our generation’s most important legacy to the company,” he said.

Mark Cavagnero, working in cooperation with Meyer Sound, is the architect for the Wilsey Center. Opera CFO Michael Simpson is the project manager.

Opera operations are likely to begin moving into the new space at the end of the year, according to S.F. Opera Communications Director Jon Finck, who said the costume and archive departments will be first, in December, followed in January and February by marketing, development, education, human resources and other staffers. “We are tentatively looking at a community opening in late February-early March,” said Finck, who added that details about programming in the theater are not yet available.

The project’s principal players are War Memorial board trustee Tom Horn; Department of Public Works project manager Tara Lamont; Lee Jones, project superintendent for Pankow Builders; War Memorial chief engineer Mark Naddy; Ron Hamburger of Simpson Gumpertz & Heger engineers; and Jennifer Norris, assistant managing director of the War Memorial.

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