It’s Show Time!

After a painstaking $26.5 million restoration, San Diego’s Balboa Theatre wows audiences again

Balboa
Long covered by layers of paint and tobacco stains, the once-forlorn second-floor lobby now impresses visitors with a restored color scheme. Stairs lead to the upper balcony.

Credit: Peter Vanderwarker

Walk through the doors at 868 Fourth Ave. in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, past the ornate mosaic of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, and take a look at the exuberant color palette of the Balboa Theatre.

"It's in-your-face and different from anything else," says Gary Bosse of the vividly painted, 1,339-seat playhouse, which reopened last year after an elaborate restoration.

Though the effort demanded numerous fixes, both inside and out, the uncovering of the long-forgotten color scheme proved to be the biggest revelation. "We found there are nearly 22 different color patterns in the house alone," says Bosse, senior project manager of construction for Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), which oversaw the restoration.

Forensic research, microscopy, and a paint survey revealed a polychromatic interior treatment hidden beneath 84 years of nicotine and tobacco stains. And outside, Bosse discovered that the Spanish Revival structure was originally a bright, burnt orange.

"It was the first time in over 60 years the [true] color was revealed," says Bosse. "People on the street were shocked."

Designed by William Wheeler, the theater opened in 1924 under the direction of local impresario Robert E. Hicks. (An article in the San Diego Union-Tribune called the new film and live performance venue "a glittering jewel box.") But with changes in ownership came dramatic alterations. The theater was painted white in 1930 when it became El Teatro Balboa, a Spanish-language theater and cinema. The U.S. Navy used the building to house sailors during World War II, and Russo Family Enterprises operated it as an action-movie venue from 1960 to 1985. The Balboa suffered with the decline of the rest of the Gaslamp Quarter, says Bosse, and at one point  was nearly razed to make way for a parking lot.

San Diego placed the theater on the local historic register in 1972, prompting talk that it might be turned into a performing-arts venue. However, when the CCDC acquired the building in 1985, the group shuttered it, warning it was vulnerable to earthquakes. While the theater was closed, the CCDC implemented a comprehensive seismic retrofit. Crews stripped out clay infill and installed a shear-wall system so that the Balboa could withstand a high-magnitude quake. "We went to the darkest reaches of the basements and the highest areas of the ceiling," says Bosse. "Some people were waiting over 25 years for this, so we wanted to do a thorough job."

After the retrofit was completed in 2006, public spaces were modernized, and crews from EverGreene Architectural Arts joined the restoration. The original paint scheme wasn't the only decorative feature brought back to life: Today waterfalls flanking the proscenium send water cascading down sculptures again, and the 1929 Wonder Morton Organ–-one of only four still in existence—fills the house with the sounds of vaudeville.

The restored Balboa has a movable orchestra pit for 40 players and accommodates off-Broadway shows and smaller musicals. Since reopening in January 2008, the theater has welcomed more than 131,000 patrons.

"I traipsed so many people through the theater in the dark with hard hats and flashlights, and now I get to see it in all its brilliance and brightness," says Eli Sanchez, another CCDC senior project manager. "The building is alive and an active part of the community as it was envisioned in 1924. "                                             

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.