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Presidio announces plans to renovate Depression-era theater

Spanish Revival army movie house flickered out in 1994

Exterior of the Presdio Theater,  a Spanish Revival in white. Photo by Brock Keeling

The Presidio Trust announced today a two-year, multi-million dollar plan to refurbish and reopen the vacant Presidio Theater (1939) in the park’s Main Post, turning it into a space for live performance and film.

The trust said via press release:

The Presidio Theatre is among the last buildings on the Main Post to be rehabilitated. Originally built in 1939 as a movie theatre for the officers and enlisted men at the post, [...] in 1942, both Jack Benny and Bob Hope brought full casts to perform and record their hugely popular radio shows in the theatre. [...] The last movie was shown in 1994.

A rendering of the Presidio Theater, with its faux-Spanish Colonial architecture. Courtesy Presidio Trust

The Margaret E. Haas Foundation will pair with the trust on the fix-up job. The initial announcement did not estimate cost, but project spokesperson Grier McCurdy Matthews tells Curbed SF the budget will run an estimated $30 million.

The 750-seat Presidio Theater (not to be confused with the still working theater on Chestnut Street) was a Works Progress Administration project. The screen went dark when the Army quit the base and gave the Presidio to the National Park Service in 1994.

Plans to fix the old place up have circulated for years now. In a 2015 assessment report, the Presidio noted:

The Presidio Theatre was one of the few non-residential buildings that was used as originally intended from the time it opened until the army vacated [...]. The consistent use and function as a movie theatre and assembly building helped to largely retain its original floor plan. Since the base closure, the Presidio Theatre has, save for a few events, been largely vacant and unused.

Photos from 2014 show many classic elements, such as the old dumbwaiter and the fire-proof film vault (early film prints were notoriously flammable) still intact.

The blog SF Citizen snuck a peak inside the theater in 2008 and discovered posters for the 1958 Steve McQueen creature feature The Blob still displayed in the lobby.

The rehabbed new Presidio Theater will still features films, but also provide space for “live theatre, dance, music, lectures, educational programming and special events.”

The construction of the theater in 1938-1939.
Courtesy Presidio

According to San Francisco Chronicle urban design critic John King, the project “will restore the 1939 structure, including such long-gone details as a wooden ticket booth within the white concrete arches.” Two new pavilions will be added to the west side.

The trust formerly put forth a more ambitious plan in 2008, one that would have greatly expanded the theater, but the lights dimmed on that idea.

Presidio spokesperson Lisa Petrie cites the, “"Benefit to the community—a mid-sized performance space that will be affordable to rent—meets the ideals of the Haas Fund and the Presidio Trust. [...] The Haas fund is able to fund the project, and build a sustainable ongoing business model. Other projects may not have had the funding in line.”

“Keeping the impact on the building as low as possible,” was also a priority, she adds. The new design will add about 10,896 square feet to the existing 10,573 foot building, but ,etrie says most of it will be subterranean space.