For the first time since closing its doors in 1966, the restored and renovated Fox Oakland Theater opened to the public in February. Originally designed by California theater specialists Weeks & Day in an exotic mix of Eastern architectural styles, the movie palace opened in 1928 and entertained Oakland’s film-going public until declining patronage put the theater out of business and sent the structure into a 40-year purgatory. Despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the structure languished in decay until 1996, when it was finally purchased by the city.
The effort to restore the Fox was spearheaded by local developer Phil Tagami of California Capital Group. Hired by the city, CCG was able to help secure $50 million in financing from historic tax credits, grants, and private donations by collaborating with The Oakland Redevelopment Agency, Bank of America, and the nonprofit Friends of the Oakland Fox.
The conversion process began in 2003 with a design concept by Berkeley-based ELS Architecture and Urban Design. ELS also served as the historic architect for the restoration (Architectural Dimensions was the lead architect during the renovation).
"You have to put yourself in the mind of the original designer," said ELS principal Kurt Schindler, "and try to bring back their original intent for the space." In this case, the architects had only a dozen black-and-white photos from the 1930s and 1940s to work from. But luckily the original decorative plasterwork and paintings were in fairly good condition, even after years of squatter occupation and vandalism.
Despite staining from almost 50 years of accumulative cigar and cigarette smoke damage, the restorers, EverGreene Architectural Arts, were able to discern the theater’s original brilliant interior palette and match it shade for shade. The theater’s ornate nine-color plaster ceiling was a particular challenge, as it had to be re-anchored and repainted with faux wood grain and metallic notes. It took almost a year just to repaint the ceiling. Additionally, new lights and chairs were fabricated to match the original theater seating. The only major change to the Fox was ELS’ decision to update the space with new, adaptable seating to create a more versatile venue able to accommodate various types of performances.
The Fox is now not only a 1,500 to 2,800 seat theater, but also a performing arts school. The Oakland School of the Arts will move into the three-story wings that surround the theater. Designed by local firm Starkweather Bondy Architecture, the renovated structure will house new classrooms, rehearsal space, and, in a unique arrangement, permit students the use of the theater.
The renewed structure should prove an anchor for the revitalization of Oakland’s re-emerging Uptown Arts and Entertainment District. Its mixed-use program, points out Tagami, benefits from the site’s location at the demographic center of the Bay Area. Just a half block from a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) stop, the theater is almost equally within reach from San Francisco or Berkeley, making it enviably positioned for another century of curtain calls.