A Strong Second A.C.T. for San Francisco Theater Space

The American Conservatory Theater has been a fixture of San Francisco’s arts scene for nearly 50 years. When it decided to open a second venue in the city’s resurgent Central Market neighborhood, it chose a once-glamorous but long-derelict movie house for a new kind of community space. Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP helped A.C.T. open the curtain on a new era for the theater, the neighborhood, and the historic Strand.

Located on Market Street between 7th and 8th streets, the new performance venue, education center, and neighborhood gathering space is a highly visible symbol of change in a neighborhood that’s recovering from decades of disinvestment. Artistic Director Carey Perloff says A.C.T. saw the location as a way to offer a new kind of theater to the city.

“We wanted it to be warm and friendly and open and fun. The Geary [A.C.T.’s primary venue] is magnificent and gilded and, for some people, intimidating. It’s the perfect 19th century playhouse. We wanted to complement it with a funky, 21st century neighborhood space that would be a bridge between theater and the community, that would allow a kind of intimacy that’s different from the grandeur of the Geary.”

Pulling back the curtain

The redefined space houses an intimate 285-seat proscenium theater, educational facilities, a three-story public lobby including café and gathering space, and a 120-seat black-box theater and rehearsal space. SOM’s architectural team, led by design director Michael Duncan, inserted the new program within the shell of the former movie house, overlaying essential modern theater elements on top of the raw backdrop of the original building. His vision was to “pull back the curtain” on theater and create a transparent, highly visible gathering space. The theater’s café and lobby are open to the public, even when there is no performance.

The scope of the project was broad-reaching and complex, involving adaptive reuse, historic preservation and restoration, and structural retrofit as well as development of a sub-branded graphic identity for the theater. Duncan says the building had “good bones” and a great site on Market Street. “The simple frame of the original building gave us our cue on how to reconfigure and upgrade it. The design goal was to preserve the old and insert the new—to transform The Strand from a derelict eyesore into a dynamic home for live theater.”

Duncan’s architectural team wanted to celebrate the storied backdrop of The Strand, a 100-year-old theater purpose-built for silent movies with musical accompaniment. Constructed in 1917 and originally christened the Jewel Theater, it was renamed The Strand in 1928. It operated almost continuously, in various forms and with different owners, until 2003, when the police raided and closed the then-porn movie house. Like other buildings in its surrounding neighborhood, it was left to squatters and decay for more than a decade. By the time the A.C.T. purchased the property in 2012, the city of San Francisco had an aggressive neighborhood revitalization plan in place.

The new modern venue retains ghosts of the historical one. On the façade, cast stone relief ornamentation and metal cornices were cleaned and patched. Inside, some of the original plaster walls, vertical wall pilasters, and coved ceiling molding was retained. Pink neon-lit channel letters from the cinema’s1959 marquee were salvaged and incorporated into the design of the lobby café. 

A brand for the Strand

Onto the new, mostly modern canvas that SOM created, the firm’s Graphics studio was tasked with creating and applying a new identity for the Strand—one clearly identifiable as A.C.T., but tailored to reflect the new space and its mission. Focused on new work, emerging artists, arts education, and community outreach, the Strand’s identity had to convey the unadorned immediacy of experimental theater and reflect the gritty, transitional aspects of its surrounding neighborhood. The team chose the stencil—a staple of backstage labeling—as the means to express the direct, stripped-down simplicity of the Strand’s space and program.

“This was a project that required graphics to take a stand and continue the dialogue started by the architecture,” says Lonny Israel, associate director and lead designer for the graphics team. “Just as Michael Duncan’s vision was to leave the history of the building visible, the graphics also help keep the history of the space alive.”

The team modified A.C.T.’s existing logo with its distinctive half-moon punctuation to a stenciled wordmark, applying the motif throughout the space, from exterior signage to interior elements such as a dramatic donor recognition wall in the lobby.

“Unfussiness” was the team’s driving focus for the signage and graphics. “It couldn’t be more straightforward,” says Israel. Lettering is painted directly on walls or cut into metal sheets to resemble industrial stencil sets.

“There’s nothing fussy or overdone about it,” he adds. “The blade sign on the façade, for example, is made of three panels with letterforms on each side and a center panel painted white and backlit.”

The artful donor recognition installation is a focal point for the lobby, but true to Israel’s mantra, understated. A simple but dramatic “thank you” is surrounded by a flexible grid of aluminum strips with donor names rendered in vinyl. Signage and environmental graphics were fabricated and installed by Thomas Swan Sign Company.

A dramatic 500-sq.-ft. LED display in the lobby ensures that what’s happening in the theater is visible to the community. Referencing the Strand’s cinematic history, it serves as an audience engagement tool and a venue for locally produced video art. Composed of 126 separate LED tiles, it is the first permanent interior installation of this technology, manufactured by Luxmax for touring concerts and other temporary events.

The perforated screen allows a sense of transparency in the space while dynamic content is a living testament to the theater’s work.

“It is really quite extraordinary,” says Perloff. “It’s very flexible and easy to program so it changes with whatever we have going on, either live stage action or other graphics or artwork. It looks like a part of the architecture but it’s this kind of beautiful aesthetic curtain. So you can be in the café using Wi-Fi or on the street outside and the curtain is always lifted on what’s going on in here.”


Client: American Conservatory Theater

Location: San Francisco

Open Date: May 2015

Project Area: 20,000 sq. ft.

Architecture, Structural Engineering, Environmental Graphics, and Interior Architecture: Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP (SOM)

Graphics and Branding Team: Lonny Israel (lead designer); Brad Thomas, Dan Maxfield, Pauline Cheng (designers); Nick Gerstner (project manager)

Architectural Design Team: Michael Duncan (design director), Mark Sarkisian (structural engineering partner), Gene Schnair (managing partner), Aaron Jensen (senior design architect), Gayle Tsern Strang (project manager), Maurice Hamilton (senior technical architect), Neville Mathias (senior structural engineer), Joan Young (technical architect)

Collaborators: Plant Construction Company LLP (general contractor), Equity Community Builders LLC, (construction manager), Page & Turnbull Inc. (historic certification/preservation), The Shalleck Collaborative Inc. (theater consultant), PritchardPeck Lighting (lighting consultant), Charles M. Salter Associates Inc. (acoustics, security, telecomm consultant), WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff (MEP design), Anderson Rowe & Buckley Inc. (mechanical design/build engineers), Rick Unvarsky Consulting Services Inc. (LEED consultant)

Signage Fabrication: Thomas Swan Sign Company

Photos: © Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP | Bruce Damonte, 2015. All rights reserved.

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