A San Francisco Theater Company Refurbishes a 1917 Silent Movie House

Built in 1917, the Strand Theater now serves as the second performance venue and an education center for the non-profit American Conservatory Theater.

Built in 1917, the Strand Theater now serves as the second performance venue and an education center for the non-profit American Conservatory Theater.

Like a great movie, the Strand Theater’s first act was full of promise. Built in 1917 on San Francisco’s famed Market Street, the Strand began life as a silent movie house called the Jewel before transitioning into a regular movie theater through the mid-20th century. The theater’s second act saw more conflict and drama, as the Strand changed ownership and hosted a series of business ventures, including a tailor’s shop. By the 1990s, it was screening adult movies and was raided by the authorities. Eventually, the marquee went dark and the theater was abandoned, visited only by pigeons and the occasional graffiti artist.

Thanks to a comprehensive renovation, however, the Strand is now poised for its third-act happy ending. It now serves as the second performance venue and an education center for the non-profit American Conservatory Theater (ACT). As San Francisco’s most prominent theater company, ACT’s primary performance space is a landmark building in Union Square called the Geary Theater, which dates to 1910. The luxe main theater seats more than 1,000 people and is a thriving part of the city’s urban fabric. This sense of history and urban connection would inform the renovation of the Strand, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) LLP’s San Francisco office, but it was clear from the beginning that this theater would have its own distinct feel.

An Intimate Theater

Despite the challenges inherent in renovating any old, abandoned building, ACT and the design team were attracted to the structure’s strong bones and location, as well as practical matters, such as the existing alley behind the building that would allow for easy load-in and -out for performances. The building is located in the Mid-Market neighborhood across from the city’s Civic Center and United Nations Plaza, and San Francisco institutions, such as the Orpheum Theatre and the Public Library, are nearby, so the visibility and foot traffic were desirable.

That part of Market Street had only recently climbed out of a depression, thanks to major companies, such as Twitter and AirBnB, moving into old buildings nearby. The trend led to The New York Times calling Mid-Market “the beating heart of adaptive reuse in San Francisco,” and the Strand renovation contributes to and benefits from that rebirth.

BEFORE: After serving as a silent movie house, home to various businesses and an adult movie theater, the Strand went dark.

BEFORE: After serving as a silent movie house, home to various businesses and an adult movie theater, the Strand went dark.

“For a company that has been around since the ’60s, they hadn’t had a smaller second venue for teaching and experimental works,” says Michael Duncan, FAIA, design director for SOM. “Market Street, which had once been the public living room for the city, had become pretty derelict. But now that companies like Twitter have moved in down the block, that whole area has been reborn.”

Today, the once-derelict movie house has a bold new theater, a light-filled modern lobby, and a “black box” teaching and performance space, which can accommodate smaller audiences. The original space accommodated 725 seats, but ACT wanted something more intimate, where the spoken word could be more deeply felt. The new theater has 285 seats and is painted red, an edgy choice that is a stark contrast from the more placid and ornate Geary. (In its last iteration before the renovation, the Strand had a rusty red exterior and a burgundy red interior.) Because the Strand had been a movie house, the design team had to build a new stage and used a series of perforated metal insertions to help define the space and focus its sight lines. Some of the seating is removable so the company can put in tables for more reception-style seating, as well.

“We wanted this to be a more intimate theater but we didn’t want to drive away all the ghosts,” Duncan says. “Our strategy was to take our cues from what was preserved and its relationship to the outside.”

The original 1-story lobby was opened to double height in a bright, white modern space with metal staircases and landings offering visitors expansive views around the lobby. The team installed a large see- through LED screen in the lobby as a nod to the old movie house. This screen can be seen from the street, enlivening the space for patrons but also letting them be part of the “show” for passersby outside. A lobby coffee bar offers more public engagement, as well, staying open to the public during the day and then serving as the intermission destination during performances. Yet the past remains visible in the form of an old concrete wall that was kept exposed in the lobby and the salvaged letters from the old marquee that hang above the cafe.

The new theater has 285 seats, some of which are removable so the non-profit American Conservatory Theater can put in tables for more reception-style seating.

The new theater has 285 seats, some of which are removable so the non-profit American Conservatory Theater can put in tables for more reception-style seating.

Raw Character

The team gave the theater a new, modern canopy on the exterior, which provides contrast with the original ornamentation, of which the designers took castings and extended down to eye level. The exterior was painted a vivid red and on one side of the building different graphic typefaces proclaim all that is happening within, including the words “engagement,” “education,” “tradition,”“community” and “art.” In all, about 80 percent of the original structure was preserved, which allowed the team to benefit from a historic-preservation grant.

“The contrast helps you to be aware of both old and new,” Duncan says. “The graphic type on the exterior reinforced this raw character while still referencing ACT’s original brand. You walk through this red fac?ade into this white room. There is some old steel in the side wall that we kept exposed. There was even a moment on the project where there’s a rusty beam that was coming out, and I’d been very specific about leaving the rust on it [but it had been accidentally removed]. The stagehand painted the rust back in.”

BEFORE PHOTOS: Denys Baker
AFTER PHOTOS: Bruce Damonte

About the Author

Kim O'Connell
From Arlington, Va., Kim O’Connell writes about architecture, sustainability, history and other topics for a range of national and regional publications.

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