Oakland's Restored Fox Theater "Worth the Trip"

Posted on: February 10th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 5 Comments

The sign for the Fox Theater, Oakland.

Oakland, California. San Francisco’s New Jersey, snarky bridge & tunnel references and all. (As a proud Jersey boy, I think I’m allowed to say that.)

Oakland also has to contend with one of the most frequently repeated quotes about an American city -- yes, I’m talking about Gertrude Stein’s observation about Oakland that “there is no there there.”

Ms. Stein was not, as almost everyone assumes, comparing her native Oakland to her adopted Paris and suggesting that Oakland was a podunk town lacking in substance. Rather, the remark stems from a visit she made to Oakland in the 1930s as part of a book tour. While there, she went to visit her childhood home and couldn’t find the house. It’s not a catty quip, it’s a melancholy reflection of a disconnect from childhood memories.

Still, the misunderstanding of the quote stubbornly lives on, as does the latent snobbery toward Oakland that’s just below the surface of many resident’s of “the City” across the bay. Having made my home in San Francisco for 17 years, I’m afraid I’m part of the problem -- I tend to treat the San Francisco Bay crossing as if it were the Straits of Gibraltar rather than the three-mile wide puddle it is. In my defense, I don’t own a car, and I know just a wee bit too much about what could happen to the BART tubes in the Big One to want to make the crossing on a regular basis.

Performers took the stage during the opening.

Performers took the stage during the opening.

But if I’m part of Oakland’s problem and have played my own small role in holding back a long overdue urban renaissance in Downtown Oakland, I’m ready to make amends. Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Grand Opening of the Fox Oakland Theater, and I gotta say, I was blown away. If Oakland too frequently comes up short in head-to-head comparisons with San Francisco, its time to recognize a fundamental fact: Somehow, a profound attack of cultural amnesia allowed San Francisco’s magnificent 1929 Fox Theatre to be demolished just months after its closure in 1963. The Fox Oakland could easily have met the same fate, but Oaklanders never completely gave up on their Fox Theater, which opened the year before the San Francisco Fox and closed thee years after the closure of its sibling across the bay.

The next few decades were not kind to the Fox, but somehow it survived. In 1996, the City of Oakland purchased the Fox. Two years later, recognizing that the Fox was still at risk, the Oakland Heritage Alliance put the Fox on its endangered list, and shortly thereafter spun off the Friends of the Oakland Fox. That same year the City made a commitment to begin repairs, and Jerry Brown was elected Mayor. In a series of acts of faith, pride, and a little bravado, Oakland moved at first haltingly, then full force with the restoration of the Fox. Many organizations and people can claim a role in the rebirth of the Fox, but the support and vision of Mayor Brown and the tireless efforts and sheer exuberance of developer Phil Tagami were key.

The restored ticket booth.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation played its part too. I had the dubious pleasure of touring the theater after its purchase by the City when the roof was shot and it was a petri dish for every mold, mildew, and fungus known to man. Recognizing Oakland had a diamond in the rough, in 2003, we provided a $5,000 Mitchell Grant for Historic Interiors to hire a conservator for the restoration of the Hindu deity statues that are one of the highlights of the interior. Two years ago, we provided a $75,000 grant for the restoration of the Art Deco ticket booth through the American Express Partners in Preservation program. Finally, the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC),  in partnership with the Bank of America, made an $11 million Historic Rehab & New Markets Tax Credit Equity Investment in the rehabilitation project.

So, this then, is the tale of two Foxes, or maybe the tortoise and the hare. On the one hand we have San Francisco (a/k/a the hare) which long ago rid itself of an obsolete liability, and left itself with a sad reminder of what we’ve lost in the cruelly-named eyesore that is the Fox Plaza.

The neon-lit lobby of the theater.

The neon-lit lobby of the theater.

Tortoisey Oakland, on the other hand, made no rash decisions. Sure, it took some patience (the Oakland Fox has been closed longer than it was open) but eventually the stars aligned. The results, as I said, are stupendous. I’ve been around preservation long enough to see some remarkable transformations, but this one left me slack-jawed (and no, that wasn’t a result of the freely-flowing champagne).

So San Francisco, you can’t win ‘em all. But take solace in the fact that the best place to see a concert in the Bay Area is just across the Bay. A short ride on BART will deliver you to just about to the Fox ticket booth. Trust me, it’s worth the trip.

-- Anthony Veerkamp

Anthony Veerkamp a senior program officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Western Office.

Updated 2/11/09 to note the partnership between NTCIC and Bank of America

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

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5 Responses

  1. Martha L. Berg

    February 12, 2009

    A very enjoyable piece, with just one tiny error: Gertude Stein was born not in Oakland, CA but in Allegheny City, PA, which is now part of the city of Pittsburgh. She didn’t live here very long, but we still like to include her in our lists of famous people born in Pittsburgh.

    I am looking forward to seeing the Oakland Fox Theater on my next trip to the Bay Area.

    Thanks for your good work,

    Martha Berg

  2. Ms Smith

    February 13, 2009

    Fantastic !
    I live on the east coast but would love to visit this theater !
    I notice Bank of America and American Express had a hand in the restoration of the Fox … nice to see the positive amidst the current economic times….

  3. wayne zimmerman

    February 15, 2009

    CONGRATS!! Visited the Oakland Fox with the Theatre Historical Society in 2008 while it was under restoration/rehab. Would really enjoy seeing it now that the job is completed. What a treasure you folks have. Enjoy it! We keep hoping that the long closed and endangered Boyd Theatre in Phila. can someday be the East Coast palace to see, just as the Oakland Fox is the West Coast palace.
    Only negative comment regards the horrid huge speaker towers and light bridges that are so very obvious. What did they do before these
    “improvements” existed?

  4. Jeffrey Powell

    February 18, 2009

    I live near the Fox Oakland and look forward to seeing the restored interior in person. It has been exciting to see the exterior renovated the last two years.

    I have seen the mostly wonderful restoration of The Alameda Theatre (Alameda is an island city next to Oakland) which is also inspiring (though there are some visual negatives such as too many speakers in the auditorium).

    I would like to see San Francisco’s New Mission Theatre be the next Bay Area movie palace brought back to life. This 2,000-seat 1916 theater, originally designed by the Reid Brothers, has a proscenium similar to the Castro Theatre (also in San Francisco) and a large Art Deco lobby that Timothy Pflueger created when the lobby and exterior were given a Moderne retrofit around 1932. Pflueger also did the Alameda, Castro and the Oakland Paramount. The New Mission would be a great venue for many different events, including film festivals and live performance. The huge blade sign spelling out MISSION, once restored, would be a source of pride and neighborhood identity.

    It is unfortunate that the Fox Oakland does not seem to have any plans to show films, as occasional films would be a chance for the public to see the theater without paying $60 for concert tickets, and it would also give people the chance to experience the Fox as a movie palace. Showing films would also bring in some extra revenue on nights when concerts are not scheduled.

  5. Jeffrey Powell

    February 18, 2009

    One thing about the Fox San Francisco. I understand there was a ballot initiative in 1962 or 1963 (maybe earlier) about whether or not to save the theater. The public voted for demolition. I would love to see the wording of the ballot initiative, and also media coverage of the ballot campaign. Perhaps the public was misled to think it would be better off without the theater and with the proposed Fox Plaza office/apartment complex. Maybe the developers of FP created a propaganda campaign around the need for housing, office space, or jobs, or said the Fox Theatre was unsafe and could burn or come down in an earthquake, I don’t know. A friend of my brother’s, now 82, was a journalist at the time and tried to save the Fox San Francisco. She said many people tried to save the theatre, but clearly even more people were necessary to turn the tide (and the ballot initatitive) in favor of saving the Fox. For many years, she had one of the light fixtures from the theatre in storage, though it was gone by the time I met her.