Dramatically framed by Morphosis’s glassy Federal Building looming behind it, the revived Strand theater, a gleaming red experimental performance space and education center for the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, clicks into its site on San Francisco’s Market Street like one of the final pieces of a complex puzzle.
Long neglected, the surrounding Central Market and Tenderloin districts have in recent years benefited from neighborhood regeneration efforts and the city’s economic boom. The Strand—which began its life on the Great White Way theater row in 1917 as the Jewel movie house, later became an adult cinema, and finally was abandoned in 2003—was becoming progressively more conspicuous: an eyesore along a rapidly emerging corridor.
An intensive restoration, renovation, and adaptive-reuse project breathes new life into this century-old cinema while providing a second facility for a 50-year-old nonprofit arts organization. But it is also a linchpin, nodding to the civic center and its cultural institutions across Market Street while knitting together the vibrant retail district to the northeast and the burgeoning residential and commercial development to the southwest—where Twitter and other tech companies are putting down roots.
Over 80 percent of the Strand’s steel and concrete structure was salvaged and reinforced, load-bearing systems were retrofitted, and seismic upgrades were made. To transform the 725-seat single-auditorium movie house to meet A.C.T.’s needs for live theater and performances, a Master of Fine Arts program, as well as youth classes and rehearsal space, SOM’s team of architects and structural engineers slipped three flexible spaces into the building’s carapace.
Visible through full-height storefront windows, and just beyond the sidewalk where the homeless still camp out, a crisp, white three-story lobby animates and is animated by the street life. “The idea was to open to Market Street and engage,” says design director Michael Duncan. “We wanted to connect and the Strand to become a meeting place,” adds A.C.T. administrative project manager Denys Baker. To create this grand entrance while reducing loads (the building sits along the underground BART and Muni rail systems), the team ripped out an existing floor. This welcoming space invites passersby in to linger at The Strand’s café, watch mesmerizing images cross an enormous LED screen, or climb up to one of the cantilevered steel balconies to gaze down at those below. Here, the interplay of activity inside and out is an improv theater in its own right.
Above this space, on the top level behind restored casement windows, a 120-seat black-box theater, paneled in thin strips of reclaimed wood, can accommodate multiple configurations for rehearsals, classes, and performances.
In the belly of the original cinema, the architects inserted a proscenium theater with movable risers for seating for up to 285 people. To bring the scale of this high space down and make it more intimate, while providing a framework for adapting acoustics, the team hung a series of perforated metal panels from the ceiling. And the proscenium serves double duty as a shear wall, stiffening the middle of the building. But care was taken to preserve the spirit of the old facility, and particular details have remained, such as graffiti backstage, which memorializes some of the less savory activity that took place during the Strand’s squatter days. “We wanted to honor each era of the building and expose its history, and not take all of the kinks out,” says Duncan, pointing to the original plaster walls (now painted a vibrant red), pilasters, and moldings, and noting that this had never been an ornate theater, always a workhorse. “But with the intervention, we wanted a contrast,” he says.
On a recent fall afternoon, the lobby buzzed as teenagers hung out after class, and the older set socialized over coffee. While serving as a marquee for this thriving arts program, the building has quickly become a beacon for the neighborhood and an emblem of its evolution.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP
One Front Street
San Francisco, California, 94111
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Architecture and Interior Design:
Michael Duncan, FAIA, Design Director
Gene Schnair, FAIA, Managing Partner
Keith Boswell, FAIA, Technical Partner
Maurice Hamilton, AIA, Senior Technical Architect
Gayle Tsern Strang, AIA, Project Manager
Aaron Jensen, AIA, Senior Design Architect
Joan Young Park and Beatrice Hsu, Technical Designers
Sally Anderson, Specifications
Yuji Nishioska, Lisa Hedstrom, Richard Henocha, Jeffrey Bajamundi, Douglas Smith, Eric Cole, Project Team
Mark Sarkisian, PE, SE, Structural Engineering Partner
Neville Mathias, PE, SE, Senior Structural Engineer
Joanna Zhang, PE, SE, and Jeffrey I. Keileh, PE, SE, Structural Engineers
Graphics and Branding:
Lonny Israel, Graphic Design Studio Lead
Nicholas Gerstner, Graphic Design Project Manager
Brad Thomas, Daniel Maxfield, Pauline Cheng, Designers
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP
Environmental graphics and branding:
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, structural engineer
WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, MEP design engineers
BKF Engineers, civil engineer
Anderson Rowe & Buckley, Inc., mechanical design-build engineers
Decker Electric Co., Inc., electrical design-build engineers
Pribuss Engineering, Inc., plumbing design-build engineers
Lighting Design:PrichardPeck Lighting, Inc.
Acoustic Engineer: Charles M. Salter Associates, Inc. (as well as security and telecommunications)
Page & Turnbull, Inc., historic preservation consultant
The Shalleck Collaborative, Inc., theater consultant
Equity Community Builders, LLC, development manager/project manager/financing consultant
Rick Unvarsky Consulting Services, Inc., LEED® consultant
Plant Construction Company LLP
Bruce Damonte, 415-845-6919
Retrofitted metal deck roof diaphragm over original steel trusses
Ductile reinforced concrete and reinforced masonry shear walls
Reinforced concrete slabs and beams
Steel and composite metal deck floor framing
Reinforced concrete foundations and grade beams
Cast stone relief: Original 1917
Mold-cast glass fiber reinforced concrete ornamentation: Giampolini Courtney, with Architectural Facades Unlimited
Single ply membrane roofing system: Sarnafil
Upper story wooden window restoration: Wooden Window
Storefront windows: Kawneer
Glass: Old Castle (insulated glass with SOLARBAN 60 low-e coating)
Skylights: Old Castle (laminated glass with SOLARBAN 60 low-e coating + silk screen design)
Emergency: Von Duprin
Paints and stains: Sherwin Williams
Wood grille wall panels (black box theater): 9Wood
Plastic laminate:Abet laminate, Wilsonart
Lobby Café counter top: Caesarstone
Floor and wall tile: Crossville Retro Active (restrooms)
Concrete floor finish (lobby): (Custom) Bay Area Concretes, Bradley Concrete
Flooring (black box theater): "Worthwood" Oregon Lumber Co.
Carpet: Mohawk Prodigal
Special interior finishes unique to this project
Perforated metal staircase (lobby): (Custom) Concord Iron Works/Wade Metals
Perforated metal panels (proscenium theater ceiling, balcony): (Custom) Concord Iron Works/Wade Metals
Chairs: HighTower Four Cast FOUR (cafe and black box theater/multi-purpose room)
Mobel "Opus" seat (proscenium theater)
Interior ambient lighting:
Lighting Services Inc. LumeLex 2026 Series LED Track System
Elliptipar Fraqtir LED Ceiling Uplights
BK Lighting DeltaStar SSL LED Monopoints
Color Kinetics Fuse Powercore LED Cove Lights
Lucifer Lighting Zero Siteline Downlights and Impact Steplights
Pinnacle Lighting Edge 2 Recessed Slot Fixtures
Boca Flasher HPNLS Series Cornice Uplight
BK Lighting DeltaStar and Micro NiteStar SSL LED monopoints at canopy
Dimming System or other lighting controls:
Electronic Theater Controls Unison Architectural Controls and Sensor3 Theatrical Dimming
Elevators: KONE Ecospace
Accessibility provision: Garaventa Genesis (Lift)
Water-saving fixtures: Sloan, Toto
Energy management or building automation system: Echo Management
Donor wall plaques: (Custom) Thomas Swan Sign Co.
Custom Neon Tubing: Greg King
Light box – houseboard: DSA Phototech
Glass and steel canopy: (Custom) Concord Iron Works; laminate glass silk screen design by Old Castle