SF Conservatory’s Bowes Center a brilliant cultural addition to The City

A new hub for music, community and collaboration in the Civic Center

There are few cities in the world with the concentration of cultural institutions and performance venues in a small space that makes San Francisco’s Civic Center special.

In addition to City Hall, courts, federal and state offices, Civic Center’s 45 acres is also home to the War Memorial Opera House, the Veterans Memorial Building, Herbst Theatre, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco Ballet Building, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, Asian Art Museum and more.

Right in the middle of it all, at 200 Van Ness Ave., across from Davies Hall, now there is another educational-cultural landmark, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s $200 million Ute and William K. Bowes Jr. Center for Performing Arts, its opening marked on Nov. 12 with a gala invitational event.

Conservatory President David Stull, architect Mark Cavagnero and Joseph Myers, Kirkegaard chief design acoustician, are among participants in the event for the celebration of “this new hub for music, community, and collaboration in the heart of the Civic Center,” according to a Conservatory announcement.

The 12-story building includes three concert halls, classrooms, rehearsal spaces, a recording studio, observation deck and garden, conference center and housing for 420 Conservatory and San Francisco Ballet School students, as well as apartments to accommodate 36 local residents, who lived in the rent-controlled building replaced by Bowes.

Cavagnero called Bowes Center, “an integrated environment, a microcosm of a 21st century community.”

Cavagnero, who also designed SFJAZZ, the Oakland Museum of California, Moscone Center Extension and many other large-scale venues in the Bay Area, said he enjoyed working on the building, which he called “a dense village in one highly visible block: housing, classrooms, cafe, studios, performance halls. It is young and old, the accomplished and students. It aspires to be all that we want in San Francisco, the pursuit of a more perfect place, a place that we normally find only in music. But this time, music has to share.”

The building is occupied and fully functional, but performances in it will remain limited to the SFCM community for the next two months. On Feb. 12, it will be open to the public at a community-wide open house.

The building is named in honor the William K. Bowes Jr. Foundation, whose gift of $46.4 million made construction possible, the largest single gift ever made to a conservatory for a new facility.

The Bowes Center, according to the Conservatory announcement, “will also play host to legends of music who come to teach and perform at SFCM, including artists represented by Opus 3, who will experiment during residencies and side-by-side with our students. Here you’ll also find the most technologically advanced practice rooms available and a world-class recording studio.”

When the Conservatory opened in 1917 as the Ada Clement Piano School, its first location was a private home on Sacramento Street, with three pianos, two blackboards and 40 students.

Renamed the San Francisco Conservatory in 1923, the school moved to Ortega Street in 1956 to reside in the cramped quarters of a former orphanage for the next half century, then moving to 50 Oak Street, which remains its headquarters as the Ann Getty Center.

From the 40-student school a century ago, SFCM became a world-renown institution with a distinguished faculty and some 500 undergraduate and graduate students who had to succeed in a competitive admission process with an acceptance rate of 48%.

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