A century ago, San Francisco’s Market Street was bustling with theaters, including The Strand. Over the decades the area declined, shops shuttered, and the old movie theater fell into disrepair. Last year, SOM adapted the abandoned space into a playhouse for the American Conservatory Theater (ACT). The design, which includes two performance venues, an education center, a rehearsal space, and a public lobby and cafe, tracks with an overall revitalization of the area. The corridor is no longer an urban wasteland now that tech firms like Twitter fill the neighboring 20th-century buildings with 21st-century buzz.
The transformation of a 1917 movie house into a live venue (with a proscenium and 120-seat black-box space) came with tough questions. “How do you make a 285-seat theater out of a long and narrow space that had no stage?” asked SOM design director Michael Duncan. The answer came from ACT—the company wanted an intimate experience. By inserting modern equipment and a stage into the tall volume, SOM brought the audience and performers closer together.
Another question was how to preserve the cinema’s occasionally sordid past. “We were careful to not to create an artificial history,” Duncan said. The lobby features a large LED display enticing the public in; however, the concrete walls are marked with old graffiti, and an original marquee sign in 1950s neon pink hangs above the bar. “It was never really beautiful—it was a workhouse theater—we tried to preserve as much as we could in its many states.”