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Renovating historic landmarks in Hayes Valley for arts education

Fri, 30 Sep 2016 21:28:00
3.5 / 5 (2 Votes)
Article by:
Laurie MacDougall
Close-up of former Commerce High educational site being renovated by SFUSD for an arts center. Building photo by Laurie MacDougall.
Decades of intense effort to bring a hub for arts education to a square block of decaying buildings in the center of the Hayes Valley performing arts district are finally bearing fruit. Renovation is proceeding on the art education hub for the entire San Francisco school district — SFUSD —and Donn K. Harris has been hired as the new Executive Director for Creativity and the Arts position as of July 1.
   
Harris will be tasked with realizing the vision for the SFUSD ArtsCenter — a new epicenter for the school district’s commitment to arts education, creativity and innovation. The center will be located in the heart of the performing arts district of San Francisco, in Hayes Valley. The site is located on a square block owned by SFUSD — known as the former Commerce High site — fronting Van Ness Avenue between Hayes and Fell Streets. The west side of the site sits across Gough Street from the newly opened San Francisco Jazz Center. The north side sits across Hayes Street from the San Francisco Symphony. The San Francisco Opera House and the San Francisco Ballet are located two blocks to the north, and the Conservatory of Music is two blocks to the south.
   
The location is central to the vision for the ArtsCenter for which Harris is taking responsibility. Due to its prestigious location, the renovated buildings are perfectly situated to bring the heart of the school district’s commitment to arts education to the heart of the performing arts district to provide synergies not otherwise possible. The vision for the ArtsCenter is to consolidate arts education for all 57,000 students, 4,000 teachers and 120 schools in the San Francisco school district; a home will also be provided for the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts — SOTA — a highly regarded public high school now in temporary quarters at the former McAteer High School site. The ArtsCenter is envisioned as a hub for all arts education activity in the district, including teacher’s professional development programs; resources for parents and students; a library; practice and rehearsal rooms; and conference rooms for arts education uses.
   
The master plan for the ArtsCenter calls for renovation of several existing buildings that are collectively designated as San Francisco Historic Landmark No. 140. The buildings suffered varying degrees of damage in the 1987 Loma Prieta earthquake, and one of them is made of unreinforced concrete, which caused it to be re-tagged decades ago. SFUSD is in the final stages of determining the plan for this monumental city block. Designs for renovation of the space are being refined by the architect, Mark Cavagnero, who designed the award-winning San Francisco Jazz Center across the street. The projected cost of realizing this arts education hub is estimated to be around $300 million, half of which would need to be raised from private sources. It is expected that the public funds needed will be included in a school district bond in November.
   
The site has a long and illustrious history of public service — as a school, and as an administrative center for the school district.
   
The Commercial School began life in 1883 on a different site as a small high school. It moved twice, and was destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, Newton J. Tharp was appointed City Architect, charged with designing and rebuilding the city’s municipal buildings, including firehouses, courthouses, and public schools. The school was rebuilt on Grove Street, but in 1913 had to be moved a third time to make room for the new Civic Center Plaza. Renamed the Newton J. Tharp Commercial School, the 8,000-ton building was moved five blocks to its current site at 170 Fell St., where it has remained for 101 years.
   
The next big change came in 1926, when the Board of Education approved a plan to build two additions to the Fell Street Campus — the Commerce High School at 135 Van Ness Ave., and the Nourse Auditorium at 275 Hayes St. Over the years the campus fell on hard times as more schools opened across the city, and the Commercial School campus lost enrollment. By 1952 the Board of Education closed the buildings at 170 Fell and 135 Van Ness to students, reassigning them to schools across the city, and the buildings became offices for the Board of Education’s administrative staff and storage. The Nourse Auditorium remained in use until the late 1960s.
   
In 1981, The Newton J. Tharp Commercial School, the Nourse Auditorium, and the School of Commerce were collectively designated as San Francisco City Historical Landmark no. 140. But the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused significant damage to all three buildings, with the Tharp building at 170 Fell St., constructed of unreinforced masonry, sustaining the worst of it. The cost of retrofitting it was deemed prohibitive, so it was red-tagged and has remained empty since then. Through FEMA funding, major damage was able to be repaired at 135 Van Ness, and the building has continued to house administrative offices for SFUSD. The Nourse Auditorium was retrofitted in 2013 and reopened as the Nourse Theater — presently housing the City Arts and Lectures program on a multiyear lease — but is slated for another overhaul with the rest of the site.
   
During the last two decades, the final resolution of the future of the buildings has been fiercely debated. The conundrum is that the buildings cannot be demolished because of their designation as historic landmarks, but renovation is always considerably more expensive than new construction. Further, because the Tharp building in particular is of unreinforced masonry, making the buildings safe — particularly for children — makes it a very expensive project to undertake. The vision of activating the site to serve the entire city as a centerpiece of arts education is therefore crucial to securing funding from public and private sources.
   
With the hiring of Donn K. Harris for the position of Executive Director for Creativity and the Arts for SFUSD, the school district has taken a crucial step in moving toward realization of the long-held dream for the buildings as an ArtsCenter at the heart of the performing arts district. His experience makes him the perfect person to spearhead the next stage of the SFUSD ArtsCenter development.
   
Harris was principal of the School of the Arts for seven years, then assumed the role of Executive and Artistic Director of Oakland School of the Arts — OSA — where he led major development and expansion efforts since 2007.  
  
SFUSD Superintendent of Schools Richard A. Carranza cited the importance of this new stage in the history of the site, saying, “We are excited to have Mr. Harris rejoining SFUSD in this important leadership role. There is no better person to help us capture the great opportunities we have in front of us.”

 
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