San Jose theatre is a California dream

Meticulous construction planning preserves San Jose’s California Theatre as it prepares for a long run as a state-of-the art theatrical venue.

October 05, 2005 |

Expanding and refurbishing the venerable California Theatre in San Jose, Calif., in the late 1990s required a careful blend of historic preservation and state-of-the-art construction. Circumstances had fundamentally changed since the structure opened in 1927; first, because, when it comes to modern theater productions, bigger is better, and second, because preservation had to proceed hand-in-hand with seismic upgrades.

In its heyday, the California Theatre featured vaudeville and motion pictures, but as the decades went by, it became a dinosaur in San Jose’s downtown. It was sold several times in the ’60s and ’70s before being shuttered in 1973.

In 1998, the Packard Humanities Institute brought in Berkeley-based ELS Architecture & Urban Design to determine if the theater could be made suitable for opera and live theater.

The structure needed a larger stagehouse, but the only way to expand was over an existing alley serving the neighboring Sainte Claire Hotel and two restaurants. To their credit, management of the businesses agreed to move the service alley from Market Street to First Street, thus clearing the alley so that a new, larger stagehouse could be cantilevered over it.The extra 13 feet of stage depth provided by the new two-story stagehouse made it possible to stage opera performances.

“The neighbors really share in this award,” said Robert Cassidy, editor-in-chief of Building Design & Construction. “Without their cooperation, this project could not have succeeded.”

General contractor Swinerton Builders, San Francisco, constructed the new loading ramp for the hotel using the existing ramp to drill 18 caissons 70 feet deep for the new structure. The firm scheduled work with the hotel  and restaurants to  minimize inconvenience to their  patrons.

The required seismic upgrading had to be accomplished without impacting the theater’s original architectural elements. The long, narrow First Street entrance foyer is supported with

The magnificently restored auditorium of the California Theatre provides a welcome venue for opera, film, and symphony performances. The theater reopened with The Marriage of Figaro in September 2004.Photos: Swinerton Builders

new beams over the roof and wide flange columns on new foundations. Structural support was given to the exterior of the auditorium to preserve the interior finishes. A series of H-frames supports the east and west auditorium walls and also provides circulation for the auditorium vomitories. Ductile concrete columns and beams were added to the original First Street façade without any damage to the existing exterior.

More concrete piles were added to the foundation, and the walls were reinforced with concrete and structural steel bracing. To expand the orchestra pit to seat up to 56 musicians, the wooden floor of the orchestra level was demolished, and a new 20-foot-deep orchestra pit was excavated, shored, and built—with no damage to existing decorative plaster work located as close as 12 inches away in some instances. The roof and balcony were strengthened; for the balcony, wood flooring was replaced with cast-in-place concrete to create a lateral diaphragm between the side walls of the auditorium. The rear orchestra seating level and balcony were re-raked slightly, providing seating for 1,146.

Construction of a new three-story building and lobby on Market Street and the addition for the new stagehouse on First Street allowed the Building Team to locate systems away from historic architectural elements and further minimize potential damage to these elements during their installation. The First Street addition contains the M/E systems, elevators, and toilets for the theater. The Market Street building contains rehearsal space, dressing rooms, and offices.

To protect the plaster work in the auditorium during the excavation of the orchestra pit, Swinerton and its concrete subcontractor, William P. Young

Shuttered for three decades, San Jose’s California Theatre, a 1920s vaudeville palace, has been regenerated as a performance space for opera and legimate theater.All photos: Swinerton Builders

Construction Inc., shored the entire proscenium and anteproscenium walls, columns, and arches, even as pin piles were being drilled and the wooden auditorium floor was being demolished. The wooden roof structure and catwalks above the proscenium were replaced with steel with no damage to the plaster in the auditorium.

Creatively constructed scaffolding tunnels provided further protection for historic elements. The trades passed through the tunnels without damaging surrounding decorative plaster or door and window frames valued at up to $50,000. Also, a ramp constructed over the marble stairs allowed the use of scissor lifts in the lobby.

On September 18, 2004, a performance of The Marriage of Figaro marked the return of live theater to San Jose. While the critics may have argued about the musical aspects of the program, there was no doubt that the real star of the show was the theater itself. BDC

Project Summary

San Jose, Calif.

Building Team

Submitting firm: Swinerton Builders (general contractor)

Owner: Redevelopment Agency of the City of San Jose

Architect: ELS Architecture & Urban Design

Mechanical/electrical engineer: Guttman & Blaevoet Consulting Engineers

Structural engineer: Rutherford + Chekene

Construction managers: Rudolph & Sletten Inc.

General Information

Size: 84,160 sf

Levels: 3

Construction time: July 2001 to September 2004

Construction cost: $58 million
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