RESTORING A BEAUX ARTS BEAUTY
SAN FRANCISCO'S WAR MEMORIAL OPERA HOUSE UNDERGOES RENOVATION

When the theatrical consulting firm of Auerbach + Associates was retained in 1992 to oversee the technical renovation of the historic San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, the charge was twofold: bring the building's outdated theatrical systems into the twenty first century while being sensitive to preserving and enhancing the existing architectural values of the 1932 Beaux Arts structure.

Given San Francisco's love of, and dedication to opera, and the building's status as an architectural icon in the Bay Area, the technical restoration was a challenge, and one that S. Leonard Auerbach, ASTC, the President of Auerbach + Associates, accepted with great enthusiasm.

"The project was very exciting from a professional point of view," said Len Auerbach, "because it was a chance to test the limits of existing technologies within the framework of a historically significant building."

When the beautiful Beaux Arts structure was first built, it stood proudly as the newest and best opera house in America. In a cover story the week the new house opened, Time magazine hailed the stately structure as "easily the most attractive and practical building of its kind in the U. S."

But after World War II, as the technology of theater craft advanced, the theatrical systems of the Opera House became woefully outdated. The lighting and sound systems, which had been designed for a bygone era, were sketchily updated over the years. The existing audio, video and communication systems were also outmoded and backstage production facilities were crowded and inadequate.

Heavy cable and wire ran willy-nilly through the backstage area as technical demands increased, creating miles of clutter. Spotlights hung on raw pipes out in the audience area. Front lighting positions over the balcony were layered with cable, and then hastily covered over with gold lame fabric to hide the disarray.

The ceiling had not been painted since the house opened in 1932, when the San Francisco Call described it as "a ceiling of solid blue, illumined by hidden lights, clasping to its bosom the bright star-like jewel of a great chandelier." Solid blue had faded to muted gray, and the once-beautiful chandelier was dull and lifeless.

Then, in 1989, the powerful Loma Prieta earthquake rocked the Bay Area, causing major damage to the Opera House. The calamity forced the City of San Francisco, which owns the building, to schedule repairs and a seismic retrofit, shutting it down for the 1996 season.

The Committee to Restore the Opera House (CROH) retained Auerbach + Associates of San Francisco and New York to oversee and redesign the technical infrastructure to support the creative and artistic trends that have developed since the Opera House was first designed. The company is known for its creative innovations within historic structures, as well as its ability to test the limits of existing technologies. Auerbach + Associates' current historic theatrical renovations include the Philadelphia Academy of Music, the Santa Fe Opera, and the Trenton War Memorial Auditorium. The architect of record for the entire project, including the CROH improvements, is the San Francisco Department of Public Works' Bureau of Architecture. The structural engineer for the seismic upgrade is EQE/Structus. The CROH improvements were designed by the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of San Francisco and by the theater consulting firm of Auerbach + Associates. The entire project--a model of public-private partnerships--is estimated at $84.5 million, which has been raised through City funding and from the private sector through CROH.

Opera has been an important part of San Francisco culture since the Gold Rush. In 1851, the first fully staged opera--Innocenzo Pellegrini's Italian Opera production of Bellini's La Sonnambula--was performed in the Adelphi Theater. Enthusiastic, pistol-packing opera goers arrived in muddy boots and expressed their appreciation with what one writer described as "shrill whistles and savage yells."

Opera thrived in San Francisco in the ensuing years. Traveling opera companies from all over the world performed in a variety of San Francisco houses with colorful names like Tom Maguire's Opera House, The Jenny Lind, and The Grand Opera House.

But the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire dealt a heavy blow to opera in San Francisco. It drove famed tenor Enrico Caruso out of bed and out of town, never to return. And not one of San Francisco's opera houses was left standing.

The dream of constructing a municipal opera house was born not long after the 1906 earthquake, but support for the project didn't go anywhere until 1918, when a fund drive to finance a memorial to the soldiers of World War I was started.

In 1927, San Francisco voters supported a $4 million bond issue to finance the design and construction of the first municipally owned opera house in the United States. Architects Arthur Brown--who had helped design San Francisco's stately, domed City Hall in 1916--and G. Albert Lansburg--noted for theaters such as San Francisco's beautiful Orpheum and the 6,500 seat Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles--were selected to design the War Memorial complex. Five years later the project was completed.

Dedicated to the memory of those who served in the armed forces during World War I, the War Memorial is composed of a nearly identical pair of monumental structures: the Opera House and the Veterans Buildings, both designed in the massive, ornamented French Beaux Arts style. The buildings were designed as an identical pair, not just for aesthetic reasons, but because neither the opera supporters nor the veterans would consent to the other having a more costly or magnificent building. The buildings, which sit on two city blocks separated by a Memorial Court, harmonize with the other buildings in San Francisco's Civic Center, and their design echoes the classic lines of the beautiful Beaux Arts City Hall directly across Van Ness Avenue.

On Saturday evening, October 15, 1932, more than four-thousand music lovers packed the War Memorial Opera House for its premiere performance, a production of Tosca with Claudia Muzio in the title role. The enthusiastic audience hushed as maestro Gaetano Merola raised his baton, and, for the first time, the beautiful gold brocade curtain "of seeming wrought gold billowed upward, like receding waves on a vertical beach."

The commemorative program that opening night described the new War Memorial Opera House as "a temple of music." Grand, but with an unexpected intimacy, the 776,000 cubic foot auditorium had been built without a single pillar. Critics declared it acoustically perfect.

The morning after the new house opened, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the gala evening's real star with the theater--"simple, direct, dignified, and absolutely regal.”

"The War Memorial Opera House is in itself a musical instrument, a sort of architectural violin," the Chronicle declared. But since that glorious opening in 1932, there has been little time--or money--for renovation or significant improvements to the War Memorial Opera House.

The San Francisco Ballet began performing there in 1933, and the San Francisco Symphony made it its home until 1980. With the building in use year round, there was simply no time to close the house for any needed upgrades or renovation.

Then came the 1989 earthquake, and the opportunity for a renovation.

"The earthquake was a disaster for all San Franciscans," said Lotfi Mansouri, General Director of the San Francisco Opera. "But because of this tragedy, we have a tremendous opportunity to restore the War Memorial Opera House to its original grandeur and ensure that it maintains its place as one of the foremost opera houses in the world."

Because the War Memorial Opera House is a designated historic landmark, preserving and restoring its architectural integrity was a paramount consideration throughout the project, according to Len Auerbach. Carey and Company of San Francisco was retained as the preservation architect, with Rob Cole acting as preservation project manager.

"The fact that the House could only be closed for one season was a tremendous challenge for a project of this magnitude," Cole said. "It meant we had only one opportunity to do the seismic upgrading along with all the other improvements.

Auerbach + Associates began the theatrical renovation by working closely with the technical and artistic staffs of the Opera and Ballet. With their input, Auerbach + Associates designed and developed state of the art electrical systems and stage lighting, communications and sound systems, and stage rigging and controls that will serve both companies.

"It is important to understand that since 1932, the style and technical demand for scenographic expression has changed greatly," said Len Auerbach. "In 1932, scenery was much lighter weight, because it was generally composed of wood and canvas and painted drops. Lighting was used mainly for color change and creative illumination. Since then, tremendous technological development has created three dimensional scenery that is much heavier and requires a movement system of much greater capacity. In turn, a more creative lighting design is required to enhance this three dimensionality--one that has been made possible by the development of new light sources and sophisticated control systems. All these advanced systems increase the demands of the building. Our responsibility is to serve these modern artistic requirements and make the building function for future demands," he said.

A critical part of the new infrastructure is the distribution of audio and visual signals throughout the Opera House. These vital distribution systems are the conduit for production monitoring, performer paging, communications, and special sound effects.

Auerbach + Associates designed a wiring infrastructure that uses almost 100 miles of A/V wire and cable to distribute signals throughout the building. The design of the auditorium sound system was a collaborative effort between Auerbach + Associates and the sound designers of the Opera and Ballet. Auerbach + Associates initiated the design of a totally new compact high output loudspeaker system that was custom developed both to create highly accurate sound coverage and to minimize the impact on the historic architecture. Auerbach + Associates designed the complete replacement of the existing obsolete lighting system in the Opera House, providing new, architecturally integrated lighting positions in the auditorium, new light bridges above the stage, and a lighting control system that is the most advanced of its kind in the world. Placement of the new lighting system has been subtly integrated into the architecture so that the audience will probably remain unaware of most of the lighting changes, according to Len Auerbach.

"Over the years, the Opera and Ballet had packed more and more lighting into exposed spaces," he said. "They put banks of lighting in front of the organ bays on each side of the house and crammed as many lights as they could onto balcony front light rails and into the ceiling positions.

"We have eliminated the most offensive exposed lighting. Everything is now much cleaner and more concealed within the architecture. The audience will notice that there are fewer exposed lights, but these provide more lighting sources from new positions. The result will be better lit productions," Len Auerbach said.

Over the years, a lot of deferred maintenance made the hall very dark. Auerbach + Glasow, the architectural lighting design division of Auerbach + Associates, was commissioned to renovate the lighting of the auditorium. "We restored some of the original lighting in the chandelier that had been removed, using modern sources in order to get a greater light output," said principal lighting designer Larry French. “The entire chandelier was renovated to its former glory by using contemporary light sources that would provide a higher level of illumination. Missing historic fixtures were replaced and the historic lighting fixtures in the auditorium were maintained and relamped with contemporary light sources to increase the light output."

The renovation was made more extensive by a fire that struck midway through the construction. According to preservation architect Rob Cole, the fire destroyed a lot of fine finishes that were extremely difficult to replicate. "The original scroll work in the boxes, which had been made of poplar or cedar wood, was destroyed in the fire. The original woods are no longer available, so we had to use mahogany as a replacement," Cole said. The fire also destroyed a lot of the historic fabric in the dress circle boxes and the smoke damage required that the building be regilded and repainted. "The restoration architects worked very hard on regilding and repainting the auditorium so that it will be brighter and have some sparkle," Len Auerbach said. "It will be more reflective and light efficient."

Restoration of the main curtain and of the auditorium seating were two additional elements that are historically authentic. "We spent quite a bit of time to make sure that the main curtain was historically correct," Len Auerbach said. "We sent a sample of the original 1932 curtain--a gold Brocatelle with swagged valances, jabots and tassels--to the fabric manufacturer Scalamandré of Long Island City, New York. Scalamandré scanned the pattern of the original Beaux Arts curtain into a computer and then stretched and corrected it to fit the dimensional standards of the new curtain.

"With a new computerized loom that operated for two shifts a day for two months, Scalamandré used the scanned pattern to custom weave nearly 2,000 yards of 100 percent organza silk with a cotton backing. This technology resulted in a curtain which is an historic replica of the original, but far exceeds the original in durability. The curtain and its rigging hardware weigh about 3,000 pounds and are operated by computerized motor controls that didn't exist in 1932," Len Auerbach said.

Even though the original orchestra level seats had deteriorated to such an extent that most of the springs were gone, the seats were still beautiful. The San Francisco Bureau of Architecture and the War Memorial Board of Trustees had a real desire to maintain them. The Bureau of Architecture coordinated the refurbishing of the seats. The original seats were taken out, the fabric was researched, and then the seats were shipped to Canada, where they were totally restored to their original form.

Just as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake provided the impetus for construction of the War Memorial Opera House, today another earthquake has provided an opportunity for the rebirth of this grand, historic building.

San Francisco Opera celebrates its 75th season in 1997, and, luckily for opera lovers, the War Memorial Opera House is still "a temple of music." When the house reopens on Friday, September 5, for a celebrity gala concert, the massive sunburst chandelier will be restored to its former brilliance and the entire house will have been refinished, painted and gilded with shining gold leaf.

Thanks to the carefully innovative technical renovation that Auerbach + Associates has overseen, the infrastructure of the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House will be much different, but the Opera House will be much the same as at the premiere performance on that Saturday night sixty-five years ago. The production of Tosca that the Gaetano Merola brought to life in 1932 will live again on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House when maestro Nello Santi raises his baton and the curtain "of seeming wrought gold billows upward, like receding waves on a vertical beach." The War Memorial Opera House will again be counted among the best opera houses in America, with one of the most advanced theatrical systems in the world.