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Nourse auditorium reborn as theater

Nourse auditorium reborn as theater

April 30, 2013

Nourse Auditorium at the High School of Commerce is the largest - and was the emptiest - public school performance space in San Francisco.

It went dark when Commerce went out of business in 1952, and it pretty much stayed dark until the day Sydney Goldstein knew she needed it. That was the day she learned that Herbst Theatre, where she has produced City Arts & Lectures for 32 years, would close for two years as part of a major overhaul of the War Memorial Veterans Building.

The prudent course would have been for City Arts to vagabond from rented theater to rented theater until it could return to the Herbst in 2015. But Goldstein wasn't interested in the prudent course, and that is why City Arts & Lectures has a red awning, newly christened by graffiti, outside the auditorium. It's the first time in history that City Arts has had its name on its own theater.

"I am unduly proud of this place," Goldstein says, while trying out a newly upholstered chair - row F, seat 13, which she considers the best seat in the house that Sydney built.

Tonight, after a performance by Garrison Keillor and Calvin Trillin, accompanied by Peter Duchin on piano, the Herbst will close. Goldstein is calling it the Last Foxtrot, a reference to the "The Last Waltz" at Winterland in 1976, which she left early, to her lasting regret.

But she won't be leaving the Last Foxtrot early. After the show she'll roll the City Arts set - two chairs, a table, a rug and a vase of tulips - two blocks down Franklin and across Hayes Street.

Nourse Theater


Wednesday night, Goldstein debuts the Nourse Theater, named after Joseph P. Nourse, a former school superintendent. Writer Michael Lewis is the opener, and he'd better have something riveting to say if he is going to steal the thunder from the hall itself, which is nearly twice the size of Herbst and nearly twice as intimate.

The sound and carpeting are new, as are most of the lights and 1,600 seats. Everything else is old school - 1926 to be exact, making it six years older than the War Memorial complex that includes the Opera House and Herbst. Designed by prominent architect John Reid Jr., Commerce is a city landmark and the only example of the exuberant Spanish Colonial Revival style in the Civic Center.

Goldstein had the option to rename the Nourse, and did upgrade it from auditorium to theater. But she wouldn't fool with Nourse. She is so respectful of history that even the stuff that had to be replaced, like the wall sconces and the 500 25-watt bulbs in the chandeliers, looks original.

Russell Yip, The Chronicle
The Nourse Theater which was formerly the Commerce High School auditorium is seen on Thursday, April 4, 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. City Arts and Lectures will be using the space while its current venue, the Herbst Theater, is closed for seismic upgrades. 

"I have loved the Herbst so much that you wouldn't believe it," she says. "It is my sanctuary, and I was very upset about its closing. But I now have done so much work on this place that I'm getting attached to it."

She has all but moved into the Green Room at stage left, furnishing it with an antique chaise, a white rotary-dial phone, a vintage radio and an Art Deco bar. Six weeks before the opener, she is here to discuss equipment needed for front-of-house staff. With her are City Arts associate producers Holly Mulder-Wollan and daughter Kate Goldstein-Breyer; granddaughter Annabel, age 4 months; and Annabel's nanny, Patricia Moreno.

Goldstein grew up in San Francisco and went to Lowell High School, which links her to the school where she now sits. "Everything is linked," she says.

Commerce (originally called Commercial High School) opened in 1883 as the business department of Boys High School, which eventually became Lowell. Commerce then split off from Lowell to a campus on Nob Hill. It relocated twice more before settling on Market Street just in time to go up in flames in 1906.

It was resurrected on a lot at Grove and Larkin streets where city architect Newton Thwarp designed a school framed in steel and clad in brick. It was built to last, and it did, just not in that location. To make way for the Civic Auditorium, Commerce was put on wheels and rolled three blocks to the southwest corner of Franklin and Fell streets, where it finally came to rest in 1913, under the loftier title High School of Commerce.

On the block


The original brick school was then surrounded by Reid's addition, which filled in the block. On the Franklin Street side, you can see pictures in the clerestory windows to reference the new SFJazz Center across the street. On the Van Ness side is the main entrance to the administrative offices for the San Francisco Unified School District. Inside the door is a glass case holding a blue letter sweater and other mementos of the Commerce Bulldogs, who won the city varsity football championship in 1950.

©Roslyn Banish, City Arts And Lectures
  All of the 1,600 seats in the theater are new, except in the balcony, where rows of the original wooden seats remain.   

At the end of the 1951 school year, Commerce was closed, though the auditorium was still used for special events, like the Christmas pageant for the Town School for Boys. Goldstein has a vague recollection of being in high school at Lowell and seeing a Pete Seeger concert here. She has a much clearer memory of coming through here when it had been converted to a courtroom for a two-year asbestos trial that began in 1985.
She saw a picture of the trial proceedings in Time or Newsweek and came by for a look. To squeeze in 100 lawyers and their piles and piles of discovery, the seating on the ground floor had been ripped out, and the floor leveled, and that is how the lawyers left it at trial's end.

The district put a lock on the Nourse, and there she sat.

When the time came for Goldstein to find a new venue for City Arts, she visited the Nourse, accompanied by an expensive contractor with a top construction firm. She asked him what it would take to get the Nourse working again.

His number was $22 million, not counting lighting and sound.

Her number was $1 million, arrived at after touring Cuba a few years prior and watching performances in theaters in far worse shape than the Nourse.

"Nobody believed that we could do it so cheaply," she says proudly, and that included a majority of her own board members who didn't want to throw money into this fire. Goldstein wouldn't cave, so her board did, provided she could show them the money in six months.

Raising the money took a little longer than that, but Goldstein ended up exceeding her goal of $1 million by $53,000. She hasn't been loose with even $1 of it.

She's been her own project manager, interior designer and bucket brigade, mopping up after the roof leaked. She's been here at dawn with a coat over her bathrobe to unlock the door for electricians.
"Ask me how much anything costs," she says, as a challenge. Well, what about these new custom chairs in the orchestra seating?

"Three hundred sixty thousand for 818 seats," she says, breaking it down to $440.09 apiece, "and another $90,000 for the four rows of the loge."

The rows of original wooden chairs will remain in the balcony above the loge. It's the place to sit if you are carrying a hat. There is a wire rack to tuck it in, on the underside of each chair.

Goldstein's group is the master lease holder of the Nourse, on a three-year deal with the school district, and three-year options after that. Word is out, and other groups are starting to rent from her. The Merola Opera Program will test the acoustics in June. Later that month, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus is premiering "I Am Harvey Milk" at the Nourse. The San Francisco Ballet has reserved it for lectures, and San Francisco Performances has booked six shows.

Goldstein can see a future here.

"Now I'm a landlord," she says, liking the sound of that enough to try it out again. "Yeah. I'm a landlord."

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