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Renovation Sets the Stage For Theater’s Next Act

Exterior rendering the Strand Theater on Market Street, in San Francisco
The Strand Theater on Market Street, in San Francisco, is being renovated to host small-scale and experimental productions by the American Conservatory Theater Company. © Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, 2013. All rights reserved

SOM delivers architecture and engineering services to renovate a nearly 100-year-old theater in San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood.

December 10, 2013—The Strand Theater was built in 1917 on San Francisco’s Market Street. A long, narrow building, the theater initially served as a combination cinema and revue, showing second-run movies and hosting Vaudeville-style acts. But as the character of the city’s so-called Mid-Market neighborhood declined through the decades, the theater did too. It became a BINGO parlor, a revival house, and finally an adult theater before being shutdown in 2002 following a police investigation that revealed drug dealing and other illegal activity there. Now the theater is undergoing yet another transformation—this time into a contemporary playhouse.

The American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), a nonprofit theater company that occupies the Geary Theatre, in San Francisco, spent years searching for a building to dedicate to small-scale, experimental productions and educational programs The company was working with the San Francisco office of the engineering and architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), LLC, to explore potential properties when it came across the Strand. The theater was dilapidated and littered with dead pigeons, but its location was attractive. “Mid-Market has always been a challenging neighborhood, but it’s being revitalized,” says Michael Duncan, AIA, the design director in SOM’s San Francisco office. “There are a bunch of interesting start-ups and small arts organizations that have moved in and have started to give these blocks a new life,” Duncan says.

Although the nearly 100-year-old theater was in disrepair, its roof and concrete walls and slab foundation were in good condition. So SOM developed an architectural and structural engineering plan to bring the 19,000 sq ft building up to code and transform the space to meet the A.C.T.’s needs. The project includes reducing the number of seats from 750 to 300, creating a two-story lobby, increasing the size of the stage, creating a new seating arrangement that will allow for cabaret-style performances, adding basement space, restoring the facade, and stabilizing the structure to meet modern code requirements. The building’s few remaining historical features will be saved. “The interior of the theater is a great space and has some interesting historic details that we are preserving,” Duncan explains. “The rest of the building’s interior had been renovated over the years, so there isn’t too much beyond the interior of the theater itself to save. But we’re definitely saving what we can.” 

Interior rendering of the Strand Theater with displays a new seating arrangement with a steeper rake

The theater will have a new seating arrangement with a steeper
rake to make the space more intimate. © Skidmore, Owings &
Merrill LLP, 2013. All rights reserved

The theater’s lobby will be completely renovated and expanded. The work will involve removing slabs, diaphragms, and bracing elements to double the lobby’s height. A large reinforced-concrete frame will be installed behind the facade to carry the weight of the building’s top floor and roof once the other elements are removed. New foundation footings and grade beams will support the frame, which will be installed in a way that preserves the facade’s historic character. “We’re trying to maintain the facade’s existing materials, which are a combination of masonry and wood,” says Mark Sarkisian, P.E., S.E., M.ASCE, a partner of SOM and the head of the structural engineering practice in the firm’s San Francisco office. “To that end, the frame sits directly behind that exterior wall and becomes invisible, so to speak, with the existing architecture.”

In addition to carrying the weight of the top floor and roof, the new frame will provide additional lateral load-resistance against seismic movement—the governing factor of the project’s structural design. Although San Francisco requires that historic buildings meet only 75 percent of the building code for seismic shear, the Strand will be upgraded to meet 100 percent of the building code requirements for seismicity. To that end, a combination of new reinforced concrete shear walls and reinforced concrete masonry unit (CMU) walls will be incorporated at strategic locations within the building. “Even though it was a historic building, we decided that it was important to bring it up to one hundred percent of the current code requirements,” Sarkisian says. “The placement of the concrete and the CMU allows us to do that without a huge increase in cost.”

A new set of stairs and cantilevered landings will be installed at the back of the lobby. The stairs will lead to the rehearsal/performance space on the theater’s top floor and main house balcony seating, while the landings will provide a bird’s eye view of the lobby. The stairs and landings will be framed in structural steel and metal deck, some elements cantilevering as much as 12 ft from the building structure. A 21 ft by 35 ft light-emitting diode screen will hang in front of the stairs and serve as a large marquee or artwork display that will be visible from the street through the theater’s storefront windows. The screen will be semitransparent, so people will be visible as they move up and down the stairs and along the landings behind the screen. “You’re going to be able to see people through the wall, and there will be projection at the same time,” Sarkisian says. “It will be an interesting dialog between people moving through the space.”

Another interior rendering of the Strand Theater

Designers will preserve the theater’s remaining character, but
because the building has been renovated so many times through
the years, many of the historical details have been lost.
© Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, 2013. All rights reserved

The theater’s main house will become more intimate as the stage is extended and a new seating configuration with a steeper rake at the ground level and balcony is introduced. Although new structural elements will be added to the theater, the existing walls will be preserved as much as possible. “One of the challenges is preserving the interior finishes in the theater while strengthening the surrounding walls,” Duncan says. “We want to, preserve the character of those old walls; we’ll paint them, of course, but they will have all of the nicks and scrapes and the history of a one-hundred-year old theater.”

The existing steel roof trusses were solid and therefore will be used as part of the new roofing system. New metal deck will be welded to the existing joists to create a new roof diaphragm, which will then be topped by acoustic and waterproofing layers. “We’re using metal deck alone to try to keep the roof lightweight,” Sarkisian explains. “But on a metal roof without concrete, you have to be careful of noise, from rain to street noise, so there’s an acoustic treatment up there.” Like the roof, the theater’s substructure was in good shape and will be used to support most of the new structural elements. Additional basement space will be created beneath the stage extension and the lobby. That work will take place within the building’s existing footprint, so it does not present significant challenges, Sarkisian says.

Construction on the Strand is under way and completion is anticipated in the spring of 2014. The project demonstrates how a forgotten building with a tumultuous past can be renovated to meet the owner’s needs and also improve the surrounding community, Duncan says. “We are confident that our work on the new Strand Theater, with its modern theater components carefully inserted into the historical building shell, will give a new life to this building. And we hope that by visually opening up the lobby, we can extend the energy of the theater out to the street and bring new life to this neighborhood.”



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