Over the past few years, San Francisco’s War Memorial Veterans Building gradually shed its institutional office look. The august old space, site of the signing of the United Nations charter in 1945 and countless performance and literary events, temporarily closed for massive renovations in 2013 and reopens at the end of September.
The renovations to the Veterans Building, part of the larger War Memorial and Performing Arts Center complex (which also includes the opera house and Davies Symphony Hall) cost more than $150 million in total. The city of San Francisco, as well as grant makers like the Herbst Foundation provided funding for the project.
The Veterans Building originally opened in 1932. It hasn’t had a major facelift since the late 1970s.
Among the most significant upgrades to the public areas of the site are the installation of a cafe with outdoor seating (scheduled to open in January 2016), new boxes in the Herbst Theatre auditorium with improved acoustics and sight lines, better acoustics, fresh paint and stage curtains, restored chandeliers, enlarged gallery space and the addition of restrooms on every floor. (The last item is a particular coup as patrons used to have to scurry to the basement to use the facilities.)
Rescuing the theater’s walls from ill-advised 1970s pink and orange to the original ochre color, the new paint job also helps highlight a series of large-scale murals that adorn the sides of the auditorium. Depicting the four elements — air, earth, fire and water — the murals were originally created by artist Frank Brangwyn for the Pan Pacific International Exposition in 1915.
In addition to the aesthetic improvements, the building underwent significant seismic retrofitting. The concrete and steel reinforcement system is mostly embedded in the walls, hidden from view.
The changes aren’t just for audience members. Artists who perform at the Herbst Theatre, hosted by organizations like the New Century Chamber Orchestra, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and San Francisco Performances, also stand to benefit greatly. Most notably, there’s the swanky new 5,000 square-foot “Backstage Suite.” It includes five airy dressing rooms, a performers’ lounge and a rehearsal room.
And for the first time in its history, the Herbst has easily accessible dressing rooms. In the past, the cramped artist facilities were located on mezzanine levels flanking the stage and in the basement.
“Before, you had to take a circular spiral staircase to get to your dressing room,” Elizabeth Murray, managing director of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center said.
The dressing rooms themselves are bigger and brighter. Many of the furnishings, such as the dressing room tables, were salvaged from the old dressing rooms — an effort to be environmentally conscious and cost-efficient.
“The artists used to have to warm up in the public hallways and bathrooms,” Murray said. “Now they don’t have to.”
Another major addition to the building is the Diane Wilsey Center for Opera on the fourth floor. The center includes a 330-seat performance space dedicated to opera. Construction on this piece of the project is expected to continue through October.
“We’ve always loved this theater,” San Francisco Performances president Ruth Felt said. “Now we’ll love it even more.”