The ultimate renovation project

February 6, 2009

Hopefully I’ll have a little time to write more regularly once a couple of intense projects at work finally slow down next week….but in the meantime, here’s a little neighborhood flavor to brighten your weekend (if you like historic restoration as much as I do!)

The Fox Oakland Theater is an incredible art deco theater in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, a short walk from our house. It opened in 1928 amidst a wave of theater-building in the city: two of the other three deco theaters near our house—the Paramount and the Grand Lake, both still in operation after restorations—were built about that time as well. (The Piedmont, the last of our neighborhood movie houses, opened in 1917, and is Oakland’s oldest operating theater today. Its deco look comes from an extensive 1934 remodel….not unlike our kitchen’s!)

Fox Oakland on opening night (from Flickr)

Fox Oakland on opening night (from Flickr)

The restoration of Fox—in addition to a number of other incredible historic restorations in the neighborhood, nicely documented here—was part of what drew us to this ‘hood. This is an amazing story of preservation—the Fox has been battered and burned and tagged over the years, and in the 1970s, the city wanted to tear the theater down to make room for a parking lot. Even as the restoration neared completion this winter, the theater had its windows shattered in the January riot. But this is a story of triumph over tragedy: over the years, dozens of Oaklanders have gone to bat for this theater. First Erma and Mario DeLucchi bought it at auction to save it from demolition in 1978; then the City of Oakland got in the game in 1996, buying the Fox from the DeLucchis in the hopes of restoring it.  It took over a decade and lots of pressure and support from Friends of the Oakland Fox and other preservationists across the country, not to mention a lot of funding and faith from Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, the design firm that developed the master plan; Phil Tagami of California Commercial Investments, the lead developer; the National Trust for Historic PreservationBank of America; the Charter School Development Corporation; and lots of private donors.

Fox interior (from the Trib)

Fox interior (from the Trib)

Today, the theater is an Oakland City Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Oakland School for the Arts, a public charter school offering instrumental and vocal music, visual art, dance, theater, and literary arts, moved into new digs there over winter break. And last night, with great fanfare, the theater finally reopened with a gala celebration, just a few months past its eightieth birthday and just in time for the February First Friday Art Murmur. I can’t wait to go see it in person—sadly not this weekend, which is packed with other wonderful things, but hopefully later this month! Check out the schedule of upcoming shows.

As someone with a passion for both history and the creation and restoration of the built environment, this project blows my mind. The architecture and attention to detail are phenomenal, of course, as are the period fixtures and intricate art. But what’s most significant, to me, is the restoration of the Fox as a community space. I’m of the school that historic preservation is not just about the physical, but the functional. Sounds funny, but this is actually an idea that’s hotly debated by historic planners and preservationists. On the one hand you have preservation of a physical space: the architecture, the details. Most people are pretty familiar with that concept. On the flip side, though, is the notion that places play a cultural role in communities. A downtown, for instance, could be perfectly preserved from a physical standpoint, but might not be able to fulfill its function as a city center with the historical spaces. Which is more important?

There’s a big balancing act involved here. I see little value in preserving buildings that no longer serve a role in our communities simply for the sake of preserving them (apart from an appropriate sprinkling of museums). But the Fox is a great example of how preservation can marry historic form and modern function. The old Fox was a first-run movie theater, but sadly the number of historic first-run theaters (especially with single screens) is dwindling, and it’s difficult to make them economically viable when they’re up against multiplexes. (Check out nearby Alameda’s recently-restored and expanded historic theater, which took another approach to that dilemma.) So we take the same building and we repurpose it in a way that both preserves the architectural integrity and allows the building to participate in the changing community around it. In this case, we throw in a school, live theater, and a cocktail bar. It’s not exactly the same as it once was, but it’s more viable as an element of the community. In my view, that’s the perfect form of preservation: adaptive reuse of our historic spaces.

Check out some other Oakland examples of repurposing historic buildings:

Make what you will of these individual projects, but one thing they’ve all done successfully is to give the buildings a renewed lease on life by shifting their functions. And if you ask me, that’s one of the best things you can do to preserve our city’s history. (I’d argue the same principle also holds for updating homes and other structures in ways that both acknowledge the past and embrace the future….but that’s a diatribe for another day!)

So welcome back to the neighborhood, Fox Theater! Here’s to the next eighty years of Oakland theater.



  1. I hope you are able to respond to this. I am part of an organization here in Faulkner County, Arkansas, interested in re-purposing our aging courthouse as a community arts center. Our group just formed (our first meeting was in January, and we are still writing our by-laws), and one of our tasks is to research buildings and groups that have successfully accomplished saving old buildings and turning them into arts and community centers. I loved this article, and I would love to learn more about how you accomplished this with your old theater.
    thank you,
    Nancy Allen

  2. Hi Nancy—Glad you found this post! The people to talk to are the terrific folks at Friends of the Fox (http://www.foxoakland.org/) and Oakland Heritage Alliance (http://www.oaklandheritage.org/) who I’m sure would be happy to share their experiences with you. Their websites should have contact info. They can also probably direct you to City economic development staff who can answer additional questions about the project. Good luck!

  3. I was at the Michael Franti show! It’s a beautiful theater indeed.

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