A New Era for the SHN Golden Gate Theatre
San Francisco’s theatrical jewel has been reinvented for the 21st century.
In September, when the curtain rises for On Your Feet!—the irresistible musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan—theatergoers will also get their first look at the newly remodeled SHN Golden Gate Theatre. An architectural standout when it opened in downtown San Francisco in 1922, the theater has now been reimagined for today’s audiences, yet with all the architectural splendor and authenticity of the original structure lovingly preserved.
“We want to ensure that the Golden Gate remains the very best in class,” says SHN CEO Greg Holland. “And with the new refurbishments—which have been underway since work began in August 2017—the Golden Gate is retaking its place as the theatrical gem of San Francisco’s mid-Market area.”
The comprehensive updates include a new color palette, plush carpeting, customized light fixtures, newly accessible restrooms (including the addition of all-gender facilities), and state-of-the-art electrical and air conditioning systems. While the building’s dramatic public-facing refresh is the most visible of the improvements, the behind-the-scenes updates to the infrastructure will greatly enhance comfort, access and safety over the long term.
“These upgrades will create a more welcoming experience for our audiences,” says Holland. “Our team has done an extraordinary job of melding the look and feel of the original building with our 21st-century needs.”
The team—led by ELS Architecture and Urban Design and project-managed by Omega Construction Management’s Don Bowman—began by digging deep into the past, gathering as much information as possible about the building’s history and, as Bowman says, its “bones.” But without the benefit of original drawings, the team had to rely on archival photos, newspaper clippings and their own detective work to understand the building’s initial design and layout.
“We did a lot of research into the theater and its original architect, Albert Lansburgh,” says Diana Hayton, the lead architect of the remodel and a principal with ELS. “The Golden Gate Theatre is a culturally significant building—it’s a major contributor to the Market Street Theater and Loft District, which is in the National Register of Historic Places. So, we wanted all our updates to be grounded in historical research.”
A top priority for Hayton and her colleagues was to honor Lansburgh’s vision for the theater, which she describes as an appealing mix of exuberance and restraint. “Certainly, Lansburgh drew on Moorish architectural references for many of the theater’s more dramatic flourishes, which help transport theatergoers to a world of new experiences,” she says. “But at the same time, there is an appealing restraint, a certain simplicity that makes the building relatable.”
These qualities have no doubt been assets in the building’s long and varied life as a multipurpose theater: In the past 96 years, the Golden Gate has been home to everything from vaudeville acts to high-profile performers (including Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and the beloved Rin-Tin-Tin) to first-run movie screenings.
The Golden Gate was managed for most of its early years by the legendary RKO company, which converted the theater into a movie palace in 1954. In an effort to transform the building into a showplace for wide-screen Cinerama films, much of Lansburgh’s original interior design was torn down. The once-elegant theater now featured an escalator, the balcony was sealed off to become a second screening room, and neon signs adorned the walls. But the Golden Gate entered a period of decline in the 1960s, and RKO closed the theater in 1972, leaving the building to an uncertain fate.
Fortunately, that changed in 1979, when SHN purchased the theater and embarked on a multimillion-dollar renovation. Major repairs were made to the main marble staircase, lobby, mezzanine and stage. The seats were reupholstered and reinstalled (the total number of seats was reduced from 2,800 to 2,400, to enhance theatergoers’ comfort), and careful attention was paid to every ornamental detail. “SHN did a wonderful job restoring all the primary spaces,” Hayton says. “They made sure that all the upgrades still had a strong relation to the architecture.”
A Dramatic Renewal
Now, some 40 years later, that same philosophy is the basis for the new remodel. “In a sense, we are reactivating and modernizing the original design, which was wonderful,” says Bowman. “It’s a combination of new, repurposed and existing.” Custom-designed light fixtures and a new, burgundy stage drapery will be installed in the theater, and the restrooms have been enlarged and upgraded. The new red-and-gold carpet is based on an archival pattern that incorporates stylistic flourishes—such as scrolling leaves and rosettes—that refer to design elements found elsewhere in the theater. Additionally, the theater signage will now be digital, though the distinctive marquee itself will remain intact.
Perhaps most noticeably, the color scheme throughout the theater will be lighter and brighter, refreshing and animating the space. “The goal is to make it fresh, while providing theatergoers with an experience of elegance and timelessness,” Hayton says.
And the refurbishment comes at the perfect time, says Holland, with the mid-Market neighborhood surrounding the theater undergoing a transformation of its own. In recent years, many businesses have opened nearby—including Twitter, Zendesk and WeWork—bringing new energy to the area.
“We saw mid-Market start to take off in a new way, and we felt the happy obligation to keep pace with these exciting changes,” Holland says. “We want the Golden Gate to remain a leading light in the neighborhood as well as the theater community at large.”