Interview: Alfonso Felder on Baseball Stadiums and San Francisco Movie Theaters

Posted on: March 16th, 2012 by David Garber

Baseball stadiums and movie theaters. They're both public gathering spots that are commonly found in cities both large and small across the United States. But it's not every day that you find someone so passionate about both as San Francisco's Alfonso Felder.

Not only is he a senior vice president with the San Francisco Giants baseball team - where he directs facilities - he's the president of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, a group formed to save and preserve the city's many treasured movie houses. We talked with Alfonso to learn more about how he got where he is today, and what it's like advocating for old theaters across the city he loves so much.

Alfonso Felder, the San Francisco Giants' AT&T Park, and the Vogue Theater. (Photos: Alfonso Felder, Peter576 on Flickr, and David Gallagher on Flickr)

How did you get involved with the San Francisco Giants?

I grew up a fan of the Giants at Candlestick Park and played baseball as a kid. In high school, I was an usher for the Giants, and later got involved with the team's front office through some of the campaigns to build the new ballpark.

AT&T Park is a relatively new stadium. What are you most proud of about the design, and were there preservation values considered when designing it?

I'm proud of the fact that it's really well integrated into the existing urban environment. It feels like it belongs, and its shape is dictated by its unique waterfront site. It's obviously not historic, but I think it feels more like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park than a Disney version of an old park. It feels authentic.

The view from AT&T Park onto the Embarcadero and the China Basin neighborhood. (Photo: jillmotts on Flickr)

What got you interested in theater preservation?

I grew up going to movies with friends in neighborhoods all over San Francisco. It's how I got to know the city and appreciate its diverse neighborhoods. When I started to see many of my favorite theaters close, I knew I wanted to do something about it. I've also always had a healthy interest in architecture - particularly the design of places of public assembly.

The marquee of Balboa Theatre, located in the Outer Richmond neighborhood. (Photo: Whole Wheat Toast on Flickr)

When you're advocating for these old theaters, what are the Foundation's main priorities for reuse? To just save the buildings, or to preserve them as functioning theaters?

We love it when movie theaters stay movie theaters, as few other uses are as effective in maintaining broad public access to the buildings.  Movie theaters are also great anchors for commercial districts, and help to keep streets active at night.  If a theater can't work for movies, some other form of entertainment is a great second option.

Beyond that, other uses that involve public assembly are good because they maintain public access and relate to the original intent of the building - churches and even gyms can fall into this third tier.  A thoughtful retail reuse is preferable to more dramatic conversions like housing, but we always shoot first for an entertainment use. 

Tell me about the latest theater projects you've been involved with.

The Theater Foundation bought the Vogue Theatre (1910) in 2007 and we acquired the lease at the Balboa Theatre (1926) last year.  We're making improvements to both these theaters while staying engaged with other theater projects around the City.

We're also excited about the prospect of the long shuttered New Mission Theatre (1916) reopening.  It's an amazing building, and we were heavily involved in the effort to save it from demolition - as well as getting it listed on the National Register. It has the potential to be one of San Francisco's best preservation stories, as well as an incredible entertainment destination.

[Editor's note: The New Mission Theatre has been in the press recently because of plans to return it to use as a neighborhood theater run by Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas.]

The New Mission Theatre, from above. (Photo: Telstar Logistics on Flickr)

What are some of the biggest lessons you've learned as a neighborhood theater preservation advocate?

Flexibility is important. We all have our own ideas about how things should be, and there's a natural inclination within the preservation community to preserve things in as close to original form as is possible.

But buildings often have to change, even to accommodate their original purpose. People sometimes refer to the Theater Foundation as the group trying to save single screen theaters. But that's not just what we're about, as we recognize that many neighborhood theaters might need more than one screen to survive.

In many cases a thoughtful renovation of a single screen theater can yield multiple auditoriums without minimizing the building as a historic resource.  The results might actually enhance the experience for film goers, while making the building more functional and competitive from a business perspective.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

General, Sports