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California Theatre
San Jose, Calif.
ELS Architecture and Urban Design

Movie palace painstakingly restored and expanded to host a range of performances

© Tim Griffith

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Shuttered for more than 30 years, San José’s historic California Theatre was recently transformed by a partnership between the San Jose Redevelopment Agency and the Packard Humanities Institute. Their goal was to preserve the ambiance of the historic interior—as if theater patrons were entering the building on its opening day in 1927—while accommodating all the technical requirements of contemporary productions and completing an extensive seismic retrofit. Since its transformation, the space has hosted a range of productions including performances by Opera San Jose and Symphony Silicon Valley, as well as classic film screenings.

The theater’s entry façade was returned to its 1927 elegance and includes the re-creation of the original marquee and vertical “California” sign from original drawings of historic photos. Inside the theater, the auditorium and three foyers were painstakingly refurbished by preserving decorative plaster, recreating the historic mahogany and glass entry, and restoring decorative paintings. Within the auditorium, the work included preserving decorative painting and historic light fixtures; upgrading the lighting imbedded in dropped ceiling beams and in Juliet balconies to minimize technical intrusions; and refurbishing a Wurlitzer pipe organ.

The projection booth was renovated and is still used to screen film presentations. To accommodate the live productions, the theater’s rear orchestra seating level and balcony levels were re-raked to create better sightlines to a new stage apron and 60-musician orchestra pit. To improve acoustics, the dome behind the false proscenium was reshaped to direct and distribute sound to the front of the balcony, then re-painted with the original sunburst pattern. A new sound-dampening roof structure reduces outside noise penetration from airplanes on their way to San José’s nearby airport. Renovation work relied on new structural framing and seismic bracing throughout the project, carefully placed so as not to interfere with restored historic features. The stage rigging and curtains, orchestra pit elevator, and theatrical lighting and sound systems are all new.

A new structure, designed to compliment the architecture of neighboring buildings, was added to the theater’s rear portion. It provides added program space for the city’s opera and other live performance groups. In addition to the two-story lobby expansion, amenities include dressing rooms for 70 performers and back-of-house support; mezzanine star dressing rooms. The second level contains conference rooms, a green room, and large rehearsal hall, as well as truck loading and side-stage areas to support theatrical productions operas, conferences, and other special events.

Formal name of Project:
California Theatre

San Jose, Calif.

Gross square footage:
85,000 sq. ft.

Total construction cost:
$58 million

The Redevelopment Agency of the City of San Jose

ELS Architecture and Urban Design
2040 Addison Street
Berkeley, CA 94704
Tel (510) 549-2929
Fax (510) 843-3304


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