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Balboa’s Long Voyage

Project: Balboa Theatre, San Diego, CA

Architect: Westlake Reed Leskosky, Phoenix, AZ; Robert Mather, AIA, associate principal, preservation architect; Heritage Architecture & Planning, San Diego, CA

By Eve M. Kahn

Just about everyone who has ever attended a show at San Diego’s Balboa Theatre remembers one thing best – the waterfalls. Alongside the proscenium, where box seats normally hang, water flows down deep-set alcoves with naturalistic faux rocks. The pipes are timed to turn off when the curtain rises, and pump again during intermissions. "Walking in there is an amazing experience, like walking into an aquarium with great acoustics," says architect Robert Mather, AIA, an associate principal at Westlake Reed Leskosky. WRL, which just finished a $26.5 million restoration of the Balboa for the Centre City Development Corp., has focused on historic theaters for decades, but had never before handled an auditorium equipped with waterfalls. The Balboa was also an unusually time-consuming commission for WRL. The theater has been on the boards at the office (and at local preservation firm Heritage Architecture & Planning), in the form of preliminary feasibility studies or final punchlists, since the 1980s.

"We’d crawled through and field-measured everything to the inch, long before anyone even knew what the project scope would be in the end," Mather recalls.

The 1924 Mission Revival landmark, designed by prolific Australian-born architect William Wheeler, had barely survived the 20th century. In the 1920s, vaudeville played on its boards, and usherettes dressed as bullfighters bustled in the aisles. In the 1930s, it was renamed El Balboa Teatro, and served as a venue for Spanish-language performances and movies. The Navy commandeered the place for housing during World War II, and although the sailors did little damage during their tenure, the theater was deemed a white elephant in the 1950s and slated for demolition. A series of movie-house operators stepped in to keep it open, but showed ever sleazier films and let vermin move in. "There was a time when a lady jumped to her feet screaming because a rat had run across her foot," Dan Whitehead, a former Balboa projectionist, told the San Diego Weekly Reader in 2007.

In 1986, the city took over and shuttered the decrepit house, partly due to fears that the hollow clay-tile walls were not seismically secure. While the surrounding neighborhood, the Gaslamp Quarter, was steadily restored and a mall named Horton Plaza grew around the Balboa, no one could figure out a workable reuse plan for the 45,113-sq.ft. theater. In 2002, the city finally committed Redevelopment Agency funds to WRL’s restoration and expansion plan. "We had rising property values and tax increment was increasing significantly," explains Gary J. Bosse, the senior project manager, construction, for the city development agency. "The bond capacity was available. We did this just in the nick of time." WRL made an ideal hire, he adds: "They have in-house mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers as well as architects – perfect for coordinating a complicated construction endeavor like this."

In hammering out the program, Mather recalls, "We met with every possible interest group and asked them what they wanted and hoped for from the building. We had wonderful cooperation from everyone. The place had been an eyesore on a major street for so long, everybody’s goal was, ‘Let’s get it done this time.’" Bosse adds, "We did not want just a pretty museum, but a useable facility for local nonprofits, with a state-of-the-art sound system and lighting."

WRL phased the construction work strategically, to persuade skeptical locals that the Balboa was really recovering this time. "To get the excitement going, we started in 2005 with demolition and abatement, so people would see activity there," Mather explains. The contractor for the project was PCL Construction Services, San Diego, CA, and engineers were Curry Price Court, Nasland Engineering and Schirmer Engineering (all San Diego, CA).

The stucco exterior was stripped – its 1970s coating was failing – and returned to its original peachy tone. The 1980s roof was slightly re-raked to improve drainage, and seismic reinforcements like layers of Shotcrete and steel ceiling braces were woven into historic fabric. Although gloomy 1980s studies had suggested that all interior clay-tile walls would prove unreliable in a quake, lab tests by local structural engineering firm Curry Price Court instead showed that the ceramic constructions could withstand forces of up to 11,000 psi.

Plenty of new interior walls were nonetheless required to create needed amenities without expanding the footprint on the tight downtown lot. "We reconfigured and shoehorned wherever we could," says Mather. New dressing rooms were carved out of the basement, alongside a high-efficiency natural gas boiler (the Balboa had previously relied on city steam heat). Original 1920s office space in the building was converted into theater offices, lobbies and restrooms. HVAC was snaked through original concrete ducts at the orchestra and balcony levels and a vintage exhaust fan in the cupola was reactivated. "All it needed was new motors and bearings," Mather explains. "It’s perfect for theater use: it’s huge and turns slowly, so it’s quiet."

The architects also worked new stage equipment into 1920s crevices. Electronic Theatre Controls of Middleton, WI, created an Ethernet-controlled lighting system with hundreds of dimmers, and LEDs were added to the house cove lights. In the orchestra pit, a motorized hoist called a Spiralift, from Quebec-based Gala Systems, has a separate platform just for the 1920s Wonder Morton Organ. The instrument has its own fan-room as well and, when not in use, can be rolled into a climate-controlled storage garage. The organ pipes not only play musical notes, but also emit vaudeville sound effects like drums, horns and train whistles.

The sounds reverberate within a house that needed hardly any acoustical rehab – although WRL (with acousticians McKay Conant Hoover of Westlake Village, CA) did specify a variable acoustic system, with drapes that come down from the ceiling to deaden reverb during movies. The auditorium’s walls retained 98 percent of their original plaster, Mather estimates, but needed wholesale repainting.

When EverGreene Architectural Arts of New York analyzed the ornate scrollwork and bas-relief urns, their blackish-brown coating turned out to contain irretrievably oxidized bronze. EverGreene replaced it with metallic pigments coated in tarnish-resistant silicone. The shimmery new paint matches the gold highlights in the new velour curtain, which has been digitally printed with a sunset luring Balboa’s ship westward. WRL interior designer Fonda Hosta based the curtain image on a vintage black-and-white photo of the Balboa stage. The drape fabricator, I. Weiss of Long Island City, NY, elongated the silhouettes of the ship and sunrays so they all read correctly when the folds hang from the counterweight-line rigging (manufactured by J.R. Clancy in Syracuse, NY).

Since the curtain rose on opening night in January 2008, the stage has hosted acts ranging from a "Mostly Mozart" festival to ballets and comedic monologues. "I’ve heard nothing but praise from anyone who’s gone there," Mather says. "To see it full of people again, with the waterfalls going again, has been incredibly rewarding."TB

 

 

 
 

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