A Brief History of San Francisco Auditoriums

Senior Architect David Tritt, takes us through a brief history of San Francisco auditoriums

Having recently been commissioned to design an auditorium for a public agency here in the Bay Area, it gave our firm a chance to delve into the history of auditoriums in the area. But first, here is a look at the 1808 Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, the oldest and considered the original auditorium in America.

Walnut Street Theater exterior (left) and interior (right), Philadelphia

There were other auditoriums built during the 19th century, but buried within a rather mundane office building in Chicago is the one I find the most striking – Louis Sullivan’s 1889 auditorium in Chicago.

Auditorium Building, Chicago

Throughout the 19th century, dozens of theaters and auditoriums were built in San Francisco. Two of these San Francisco venues are of note: the Grand Opera House (built in 1874 and where Mozart’s Idomeneo and other shows were being performed the week of the 1906 earthquake), and the War Memorial and Veteran’s Theater (where Othello was being performed that same week). Both theaters were unfortunately lost in 1906.

The Grand Opera House (below) was originally called Wade’s Opera House (Dr. Wade, a dentist, had financed it) and was situated where Jessie Square and the current St. Patrick’s Church are located on Mission Street between 3rd and 4thStreets. Architects: Samuel Charles Bugbee and Charles Lewis Bugbee of the firm S.C. Bugbee and Son.

Grand Opera House interior (left) and exterior (right), San Francisco

The Grand Opera House had its roof collapse in the Great San Francisco Earthquake at 5:00 a.m., 04/18/1906; this was the day following an evening performance of Carmen that included Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) and the Conired Metropolitan Opera Company of New York. Its rubble was cleared and the site purchased by the Roman Cahtolic Archdiocese of San Francisco, where it built the current Saint Patrick's Church.*

*From the Pacific Coast Architecture Database

When the city rebuilt itself after 1906, one of the first theaters to be designed and constructed was the Geary Theater at 415 Geary, whose current tenant is the American Conservatory Theater. This gem was designed by Walter D. Bliss and William B. Faville in 1910 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Geary Theater exterior (left) and interior (right), San Francisco

Adjacent to the Geary Theater is the Curran Theater, built later in 1922 and named after its original owner. The architect was Alfred Henry Jacobs.

Curran Theater exterior (left) and interior (right), San Francisco

Other theaters built in the post 1906 earthquake early 20th century period in San Francisco were the Golden Gate Theater in 1922 and the Orpheum Theater in 1926, designed by architect B. Marcus Priteca.

Golden Gate Theater (left) and Orpheum Theater (right)

A newer venue for the performing arts is San Francisco Masonic Auditorium designed by Albert Roller in 1958.

San Francisco Masonic Auditorium exterior (left) and interior (right)

A fascinating exterior I should mention is the Scottish Rite Auditorium at 19thand Sloat – I pass it often and someday would like to see the interior. It has an intriguing front entrance that is on an axis to nowhere since it centers itself to the broadside of busy 19th Avenue, a street with absolutely no pedestrian traffic or sidewalk. The real entrance is at the side and rear, where parking exists. But it has a great street side ceremonial elevation, if only symbolic at best, since it is difficult to perceive traveling along 19th Avenue at 45mph.

These auditoriums are some of the more interesting performing arts venues designed and built in San Francisco since the 1906 earthquake. They are, for the most part, doing well. The same cannot be said however for our movie "palaces", a subject for an upcoming blog post (or two).

Blog Post written by David Tritt, Senior Architect.

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