San Francisco Opera House's Restoration Continues
By Sarah Marloff | Online Only | Dec. 16, 2010
The oldest performing arts building in San Francisco is in the process of getting a facelift.
The Bayview Opera House was designed by Henry Guilfuss and completed in 1888, back when the Bayview was still considered South San Francisco. Even after becoming part of the city, the neighborhood remained isolated and economically disadvantaged.
The arrival of light rail has helped to tie the community back into the fabric of the city and is acting as a catalyst for change. Locals hope the Opera House will be a welcome centerpiece of a neighborhood renaissance.
"I think Bayview residents see the Opera House as a community resource, not an agent of gentrification," says Anthony Veerkamp, director of programs at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Western Office.
Currently, the Opera House is one of four city-owned cultural centers in San Francisco's low-income neighborhoods. Its mission is to bring art and culture to the neighborhood in a safe space.
Unfortunately, years of deferred maintenance and mismanagement took their toll on the Opera House. In 2004, with the support of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Bayview Opera House received a Save America's Treasures grant for $197,535 from the National Park Service to restore the theater's original hardwood floors.
Despite that important financial support and the publicity generated by participating in the San Francisco Partners in Preservation program, the Opera House continued to falter, and in 2007 the San Francisco Arts Commission, the city agency that owns the building, placed Bayview Opera Inc., the nonprofit that has occupied the building since 1989, on "probationary status."
"That's when we started working directly with the San Francisco Arts Commission, augmenting a $5,000 Partners in Preservation planning grant with direct advice and technical assistance," Veerkamp says. Meanwhile, a core group of volunteers began the difficult work of getting the organization back on solid footing, including assuring that the terms of the Save America’s Treasures grant were met.
One requirement of the grant was to find an organization willing to hold a 50-year preservation easement for the Opera House. Earlier this year, San Francisco Architectural Heritage became involved, and as of Dec. 7 the easement was approved by the city's board of supervisors.
"Now we're waiting for the mayor to sign it," says Mike Buhler, executive director of the nonprofit San Francisco Architectural Heritage. "We're really excited about this easement, to have a meaningful presence in the city's most ethnically diverse community and to protect a piece of significant history."
Three years ago the building's historic windows and the outside facade were restored, and the inside was repainted. The recent re-flooring project took about four months to complete: the old linoleum floor, which had covered the original Douglas Fir planks, was removed; the stage was sanded and finished; and the proscenium was repainted.
"The restoration has benefited the building tremendously," says Barbara Ockel, interim managing director of the reinvigorated Bayview Opera Inc. "It's so much more beautiful, and it has improved the sound quality for music as well."
But the restoration for the opera house—like that of the neighborhood—is an ongoing process. During the floor restoration, workers discovered a leak in a wall, rotting and filled with mold. It will take about $400,000 to fix the wall, according to Ockel. "The only thing we could do was cover it back up, but we're looking for grants and donors to fix this," she says.
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