Menlo Park, Calif.’s newly reimagined “jewel box” theater, The Guild Theatre, is an exceptional example of a revitalization effort to bring world-class, live performances to the region. The team, led by CAW Architects, sought to create a state-of-the-art performance space that emphasizes an intimate relationship between artist and audience. Specifically, a key design goal for the client, non-profit Peninsula Arts Guild, was to create a suitable venue for larger, well-known artists who value performing in a smaller setting—an industry term known as “underplay.”
To achieve this goal, CAW Architects designed a 500-person-capacity theater that replicates a traditional theater with a series of viewing terraces and stepped-down flooring, paired with a stage height of 3 feet, allowing performers to play to standing-room crowds. Inspired by the legendary Filmore Theater in San Francisco, the larger-than-typical stage for the theater’s size, including the superb artist amenities, ensures that it will attract world-class talent.
For the interior architecture of the venue, which dates back to the 1920s, the biggest design challenge, beyond creating clear sightlines and audience-artist intimacy, was managing the architectural acoustics. Architectural finishes had to perform three important duties: create favorable acoustics, look beautiful and be virtually indestructible from the hard use that concertgoers dish out.
Finishes were selected for maximum absorbency so virtually no surface reflects sound back to its source. A deep walnut palette, which aesthetically makes for a dark yet warm interior, performs its acoustical work by a series of solid panels festooned with holes and perforations that allow sound to pass through. Walnut “egg-crate” ceiling systems and wood wainscoting perform similar double duty. Walnut flooring, cut to reveal the end grain, proves a durable material that is beautiful and virtually indestructible.
The exterior of the fully remodeled theater underwent substantial new construction and was properly scaled for a zero setback that honored the fully restored historic blade sign and marquee. Most of the existing building was demolished with the exception of portions of two exterior walls, which were painstakingly supported while a full basement was excavated for support space. The tiny site and difficulty of shoring not only the remaining concrete walls but the neighboring buildings during the 18-foot-deep excavation required amazing planning and site logistics by the general contractor, Vance Brown Builders.
Glazing was added to the façade to showcase the activity in lower and upper lobbies on show nights. Interior heights were carefully designed around the need for specific theater systems and rigging above the stage. A flexible guardrail system in the balcony section allows for varied heights, depending on the needs of the show, whether it is a seated or standing-room event.
Because artist comfort was of the utmost importance, the carefully programmed artist facilities address performers’ specific travel needs—everything from showers to a place to nap, eat and wash clothes—and were considered and designed for ultimate comfort. A catering kitchen supports meals for artists and crew.
Additional artist perks include a streaming studio and numerous pan/tilt/zoom cameras that allow for live streaming of performances, as well as video capture to reward the artists with a video record of their performance. A state-of-the-art Meyer sound system powers the audio, and a theatrical lighting rig that one venue manager remarked was “sized for an arena, not a club” allows lighting designers an unlimited palette.
Theatergoers can enjoy the playful interiors palette, which was brought to life by interior designer Ken Fulk. Key moments include swinging entry doors, outfitted with custom portholes, that lead into the lobby where the terrazzo flooring was designed with an inlaid reference to a vintage phonograph. Other highlights include rock crystal fixtures with a color scheme of California poppy orange and burgundy with leather, brass, walnut and glossy lacquered wall panels that can be found throughout the venue.
The result of the team’s significant efforts is an utterly unique, reimagined venue that is now cherished more than ever by the local Menlo Park community and revered by concertgoers and artists alike.
To the client’s delight, the coveted “underplays” have materialized as planned with artists, such as The Wallflowers, Social Distortion, and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, having graced the stage recently. This past April, Bobby Weir and the Wolf Brothers Trio closed its national tour with a five-day residency. Weir is, of course, a founding member of the Grateful Dead, a band which began its storied career in 1965 by playing its first gig at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor right around the corner from The Guild Theatre. Other venues on the tour ranged between 1,500- and 3,000-person capacity, so it speaks volumes that the musician chose to take up residency at The Guild Theatre for five shows.
What really matters most in a venue like this is creating an intimate relationship between the audience and the artist. Superb architectural acoustics, state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, and impeccable sightlines reinforce this relationship. Finally, interior finishes that include dark wooden finishes with bronze accents make for an elegant atmosphere.
PHOTOS: Bruce Damonte unless otherwise noted
OWNER: Peninsula Arts Guild
ARCHITECT: CAW Architects
- Chris Wasney, FAIA, principal
- Monique Wood, AIA, LEED AP, associate
- Kathryn Stevens
GENERAL CONTRACTOR: Vance Brown Builders
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: BKG Structural Engineers
THEATRICAL AND AV CONSULTANT: The Shalleck Collaborative
THEATRICAL SYSTEMS INTEGRATOR: Legend Theatrical
ACOUSTICS AND LOW VOLTAGE: Salter
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Banks Landl Lighting Design
MECHANICAL ENGINEER: Taylor Engineers
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Ken Fulk Inc.
ENTRANCE DOORS: Stainless Steel door with Custom Glazing Shape from Forms + Surfaces
NEON MARQUEE: Refurbished Original Blade Sign and Neon Design, Fabricated by Arrow Sign Company
END GRAIN WOOD FLOOR: Worthwood White Oak, Stained Black #120, from Oregon Lumber Co.
WOOD CEILING GRID: Open Cell Tile, 6-inch On-center Grid, Custom Walnut Stain, from Madrid
WOOD CEILING PANELS: Flat Panel, Perforated Wood, Custom Walnut Stain, from Madrid
BRONZE HANDRAIL TOP CAP: Julius Blum 4530 Profile
WALL TILE BEHIND BAR: Laguna Tile, Azure, 6-inch Scallop Pattern from Concrete Collaborative
BAR TOP: Lemurian Blue Granite
WAINSCOT PANELS: Custom Walnut Finish Wood with Metal Mesh Infill, S-55, Antiqued Brass from Banker Wire
REFURBISHED LIGHT FIXTURE OVER BAR (SALVAGED FROM ORIGINAL BUILDING): Dogfork Lamp Arts
CURTAINS AT WALL: Inherently Flame-resistant Prestige 26-ounce, Custom Dark Orange Color, from iWeiss
CURTAIN AT STAGE: Inherently Flame-resistant Prestige Tara, 3185 Burgundy Color, from iWeiss
CUSTOM STAIR LIGHT FIXTURES: James W. Crawford Company
CUSTOM TERRAZZO FLOORING: Associated Terrazzo