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Platinum Award: Theater Renovation—A First-Class Production

It took 23 years to restore San Diego's historic Balboa Theatre, but the landmark project is receiving rave reviews.

October 01, 2008 |
The restoration of the long-dark historic theatre bordering San Diego’s Gaslamp District returns the Historic Register landmark to original 1924 splendor, while transforming it into a functional multi-use performing arts center accommodating diverse programs and community gatherings. A 22-year effort and comprehensive $26.5 million phased project solved space constraints and technical requirements.
In 1985, the city of San Diego ordered the historic Balboa Theatre, its beleaguered performing arts center, to be shuttered due to seismic safety concerns. It would take another two decades to restore the landmark building.

The theater enjoyed many years in the spotlight before beginning its slow creep toward dereliction. Opened in 1924, the Spanish Revival-style
Before and after of theater salon. A significant portion of the Balboa’s restoration involved sculpting and casting.
The audience chamber was described as a “glittering jewel box,” because of the substantial use of bronze metallic powder paint applied to the cast-plaster wall and ceiling surfaces. The ceiling includes ornate and gilded plaster grillwork that funnels sound throughout the building. A unique feature of the loggia was the pair of waterfalls flanking the stage which sent water cascading down “mountain-esque” sculptures fashioned from cement plaster. The mountains were brought back into working order, reshaped to avoid splashing water, and repainted using waterproof pool paints.
A laid-in-tile mosaic depicting the ship sailed by Vasco Nunez de Balboa is located on the floor of the rotunda at the entry corner of the theatre facing the Gaslamp Quarter. Spanish and Mediterranean imagery and historical allegory are evident throughout the theatre, in the lighting fixtures, stage curtain, and murals recreated in the second floor Salon.
An original ramp leading up to the mezzanine that was too steep for wheelchairs and consumed about 40% of the lobby area has been removed to capture much-need space—almost doubling the size of the orchestra lobby. New openings have been made to allow the lobby to spill out onto an area of Horton Plaza to take advantage of San Diego’s enjoyable climate and provide additional outdoor lobby space for gatherings.

Balboa Theatre (named for Spanish explorer and conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa, 1475-1519) was San Diego’s premier live-performance venue, attracting the top vaudeville acts and stars of the day. Over the years the five-story theater changed names (becoming El Teatro Balboa in 1930), formats (in the late ’30s, it became a movie house showing Spanish-language films), and purpose (the Navy housed sailors there during World War II).

As early as 1959, the theater was threatened with destruction, but in 1972 Balboa made it onto the local Historic Register, followed in 1992 with a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1985, the shuttered building was acquired by Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), which was intent on restoring the building and establishing it as the cornerstone of Horton Plaza, a 1,500-acre retail and commercial redevelopment project in downtown San Diego. 

CCDC engaged the Phoenix office of architect Westlake Reed Leskosky in1986, but financial considerations kept the theater’s restoration on hold for years as Horton Plaza grew up around it.

Horton Plaza’s success ultimately paid for the theater’s $26.5 million restoration. Money generated by the redevelopment, in the form of rising property values and tax revenue, augmented by a successful bond issue in 2002, was funneled into Balboa.

That was the good news. The bad news was that the surrounding development had landlocked the theater. When restoration finally began in earnest in 2006, there was no possibility of expanding the theater beyond its existing footprint; all the modern requirements for staging, performance, and support spaces had to fit into the existing 45,113-sf building.

Balboa Theatre first underwent a seismic retrofit. Extensive analysis by San Diego-based structural engineer Curry Price Court determined that the theater’s nonductile concrete frame and hollow clay walls with tile infill could be fitted with a supplemental shotcrete shear wall system to control displacement and provide composite seismic strength close to that of new construction. 

With the structure shored up, the Building Team concentrated on creating a state-of-the-art performance space while preserving the theater’s old glamour. 

New plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and performance systems, including rigging, lighting, and audio/visual technology, were installed. The theater was air conditioned for the first time. It was fitted with a custom air-handling unit connected to the orchestra and balcony levels that uses fan-wall technology for quieter operation, lower horsepower, and a smaller footprint—a big bonus when every square foot counts.   

Restoration work focused on six public spaces: the entry rotunda; the stage house; the audience chamber; and the mezzanine, salon, and orchestra-level lobbies. Dropped ceilings, dirt, oxidation, heavy tarnishing, over-painting, and years of neglect masked the theater’s original ornamentation. Careful repair work saved some details while others had to be replicated.

Forensic research revealed the theater’s original purple, turquoise, rose, and earth-tone color palette. Murals in the salon were uncovered. The Building Team was able to reproduce the stage curtain based on a surviving glass plate negative of the original fabric. Waterfalls flanking the stage were brought back to working order, and a new blade sign and marquee were added outside.

Last January, houselights illuminated the historic Balboa Theatre for the first time in 23 years.

The judges lauded the Building Team’s attention to detail, which enabled the thoroughly modern theater to retain its rich, historic aesthetic. “This is an incredible, beautiful renovation,” said Lucien Lagrange, AIA, principal at Chicago-based Lucien Lagrange Architects. “They brought the building back to its original life.”


Project Summary

Balboa Theatre

San Diego, Calif.

Building Team
Submitting firm: Westlake Reed Leskosky (architect, MEP)

Owner: Centre City Development Corp.

Associate architect/preservation consultant: Heritage Architecture & Planning

General contractor: PCL Construction Services

Structural engineer: Curry Price Court

General Information

Area: 45,113 sf

Construction cost: $26.5 million

Construction time: June 2006 to January 2008
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