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Once the center of civic life, former Oakland Auditorium now vacant with future still uncertain

on February 13, 2012

The Grateful Dead played some legendary shows there. Roller derby tournaments were a staple for years, and so was the Oakland Symphony. Every year, events that brought much of the city together, like the annual Christmas pageant, were held there.

From 1914 when it opened until its closure in 2006, the Oakland Civic Auditorium—re-named the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in 1984 after a $15 million renovation—was at the center of civic life in Oakland. For years, the stunning Beaux Arts style building, located on the southwest end of Lake Merritt, was a multi-use entertainment hub and community gathering place. The center has an arena, ballrooms, and a theater, and could accommodate up to 8,000 people.

For many Oaklanders, memories of events in the building remain strong decades later. Annette Rahbek Floystrup remembers seeing Bill Clinton speak on a rainy day in 2000, as well as a visit from the Dalai Lama. “The auditorium was packed and filled with serene energy and gentle laughter as His Holiness, the Dalai Lama spoke and punctuated his talk with much laughter and many giggles. It was quite a euphoric experience,” she recalls.

Camille Trentacoste, who grew up in Oakland in the 1960s, remembers performing in the annual Christmas pageant as a little girl, when the auditorium “seemed enormous.”

“Instead of a stage, we used the whole floor, the way it would be set up for a basketball game, and looking up under the spotlight, the seats seemed to rise up endlessly in the dark,” Trentacoste wrote in an e-mail. “I suppose most of the crowd were the parents of the kids involved, but it was quite a lot of people.”

But for the last half-decade, the place has sat vacant and empty of life, slowly deteriorating. The city, which owns the building, closed it in 2006 because it wasn’t profitable. Today the building needs at least $7 million worth of improvements on the inside, according to Oakland City Councilmember Patricia Kernighan, including fixing the heating system, if it is going to be operational again. Attempts to sell the building, or proposals to turn it into something else, like a library or international trade center, have failed.

And while city officials are hopeful the place can be fixed and re-opened soon, there still are questions about who just might reopen the facility, and when.

“It’s kind of up in the air right now,” said Kernighan, whose district includes the convention center. “We don’t know what our concrete options are, but we would like to put it back to use.”

The Oakland Civic Auditorium was designed in the early 20th Century by John J. Donovan and Henry Hornbostel, who also worked on the design and construction of Oakland City Hall. According to Oakland historian Dennis Evanosky, the building is an example of the “City Beautiful movement,” when architects and planners were rebuilding and altering cityscapes to look better. The auditorium, a striking building with exaggerated architectural elements that make everything appear slightly larger than it is, as Oakland’s “grand answer” to the movement, Evanosky said.

Evanosky said that over the years, especially during the building’s heyday in the 1920s, it was “a meeting place, a place for people to get together.”

The Grateful Dead’s numerous concerts— including many New Year’s Eve shows— probably brought the auditorium its most fame, Evanosky said, simply because they played there so often. Elvis, James Brown and Rick James also performed there. The auditorium also hosted athletic events, like boxing and basketball, and a range of speakers including the Dali Lama and President Woodrow Wilson.

But the good times didn’t last. Even before the building closed in 2006, the city had begun trying to sell the building, with little success. In 2005, the Peralta Community College District came close to purchasing the building for use by nearby Laney College. The city also looked into moving the main branch of the library to the convention center in 2006, and a measure for a $148 million bond deal to fix up the building and move the library there was rejected by voters.

In 2010, the city had the building appraised, and its market value was determined at $29 million. In October, 2011, city staff put out a request for a proposal for an “experienced real estate brokerage company or a real estate marketing firm” to market the convention center to potential buyers around the country, according to city spokesperson Harry Hamilton. The city has not announced any selections.

For her part, Kernighan said she would like the building to return to being an entertainment venue, “like it always was.” She said that the building’s central location—near the lake, but also downtown and right next to the Oakland Museum—make it an ideal “community gathering place.”

The problem, though, Kernighan said, is the building “has to pay for itself” and the size of the building makes that more difficult, because of the staffing level and all of the repairs it needs. “I don’t know yet if there’s someone that can operate it in that fashion,” she said.

After being more or less forgotten for years after its closure, the Kaiser Convention Center was back in the news twice within the past half-year. In August, 2010, in a desperate attempt to close a $58 million budget gap, the city and redevelopment agency engaged in an unusual transaction, in which the building was sold by the city to the agency for $28.3 million, with the idea the redevelopment agency would either sell the building or find a public use for it.

But then the state dissolved redevelopment agencies this year, and instructed agencies to dispose of their assets. For Oakland, that includes the building, meaning that the city must now sell it to a new bidder—that only added to confusion surrounding the center’s future.

Then on January 28, 2012, a group of Occupy Oakland protesters tried to move into the building to create a social center where they planned to hold a two-day festival. The protesters targeted the building, according to the Occupy Oakland website, because it had been unused for years.  When protesters arrived at the building, they were met by Oakland police officers, and they clashed in the street in front of the building. About 400 people were arrested throughout the day, as the protesters moved throughout the city in search of a building to occupy.

Kernighan said that if Occupy Oakland had taken over the convention center, “it would have been quite a disaster from the city’s perspective, because we wouldn’t have been able to lease or sell it and guarantee that it would just continue to deteriorate.”

Residents, too, are hoping for a comeback. “It is sad to see the gross mismanagement that has taken over the auditorium as the City has striven to find excuses to either totally repurpose it or tear it down,” Floystrup said. “It is a highly viable music venue, among other things, and the neglect with which the current management has treated bookings is a shame. There is no question in my mind that with competent booking agents, the venue could thrive again.”

Despite all the challenges facing the building, Kernighan said she’s still hopeful it can be reopened and enjoyed by thousands of people again. “It’s just a question of how we pay for it,” Kernighan said. “And in these very difficult economic times, it’s just harder to do that kind of thing. But in the long term, eventually, hopefully there will be a way to bring it back, because it would be a great asset to the city if it could return to its former glory as an entertainment venue.”


  1. jim on February 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    typo alert: Jan 28, 2012 not 2011

  2. Annalee Allen on February 13, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    excellent article. A couple of comments: the auditorium is a designated landmark so it is very unlikely that it would be torn down. When it opened, it was considered a very innovative complex because in one building there was a concert theater, an arena, exhibit halls, and a municipal art gallery (its art collection would later form the nucleus of the Oakland Museum of California’s art section) The 2 story high niches facing the lake were designed by Alexander Sterling Calder, the father of the more famous Calder (of mobile fame). They depict allegorical figures, part of why it is Beaux Arts in style. Once the 12th Street reconfiguration is completed (a Measure DD project) the Auditorium could once again be an anchor to that end of the lake. One more thing ~ the building has been retrofitted (work was done in the 1980s) so that is NOT one of the expenses the city faces in the event of renovations.

  3. Dominic on February 14, 2012 at 9:09 am

    I just wanted to note that there is a whole generation of young Oaklanders who have never seen the inside of the Convention Center. It sounds magnificent and I hope to see it some day.

  4. Len Raphael on February 14, 2012 at 9:38 am

    The 2010 appraisal for 29Mill is unlike the appraisal any of us will ever see.

    Normally, appraisals are for “fair market value” which means what a “willing seller” would sell something to a “willing buyer”.

    But our officials got one based on “replacement cost” – “depreciation” – “deferred maintenance” plus a value for land of 5Mill (assumedly fair market value).

    What the city did would have been like a homeowner who needed an appraisal for a refi, telling the appraiser not to pay any attention to what similar condos or houses sell for, but to look at what it would cost to build a new one and subtract a percentage for how old it is.

    Considering no one has come forward to buy the thing at anywhere close to 29Million, the building would sell for half of that number.

    None of that matters if the best use is as a public arena or a homeless shelter, but it at least gives a realistic number to use make the decision as to what the best use of the building is.

  5. Sandra Turnbull on February 14, 2012 at 10:20 am

    I contacted both the city and a local developer about this facility last year, hoping it could be converted to an East Bay version of Alexandria, Virginia’s Torpedo Factory Art Center. Interested but money is the issue. Perfect location. If you are unfamiliar with that facility, check out their website. It features 80 working artist studios (not live-work) and retail display venues, plus gathering spaces for events. It was one of the original adaptive reuse projects from the 70s so you can see how transformative something like that use can be. If we build it, they will come!

  6. Greg Anderson on February 15, 2012 at 12:30 am

    My Great-Grandfather, Oakland Public Works Commissioner No. 1, Harry S. Anderson, was in charge of building the Oakland Auditorium from 1911-1915. He put his heart & soul into this building, just like he did with City Hall. He suffered a lot of disapproval over it’s construction while he was in charge.

    There was once a bond measure that would allow for an additional $500,000 to continue the project. When the city passed the bond, they had green fireworks blow off on top of City Hall to alert the citizens that it had passed. Thousands were in the streets to witness the event.

    On April 30, 1915, Harry concluded his opening day address with “As Commissioner of the Department of Public Works of the city of Oakland, it is my pleasant duty formally advise you of the readiness of the municipal auditorium for public use. With the full sense of the great responsibility that has attached to the erection of the building, I do present it to you Mr. Mayor, as the cheif executive of this city, that it may here be dedicated to the public service, for the pleasure and enjoyment of all of the people.”

    I graduated from Silicon Valley College in the Auditorium back in 2002. This building is my Great-Grandfather’s legacy, along with so many thousands who have enjoyed it’s lifespan along the shore of Lake Merritt. Please don’t tear it down. I would like to see it opened again, for the pleasure and enjoyment of all of the people.

  7. Greg Anderson on February 15, 2012 at 12:36 am

    April 30, 1915 the Oakland Auditorium opened, not in 1914.

  8. Greg Anderson on February 15, 2012 at 1:00 am

    *Chronology of Municipal Auditorium*

    -Ideas and suggestions for building an auditorium came to a focus in 1910.

    -First Auditorium Bond Issue, for $500,000, carried May 6, 1911.

    -J.J. Donovan, appointed city architect in March 1912.

    -Plans for structure submitted May 24, 1912.

    -First contract let for pilling and foundation, October 31, 1912.

    -First pile driven, November 28, 1912

    -Contract for structual steel, May 21, 1913.

    -Auditorium Bonds, re-issued at higher rate of interest, Election July 22, 1913.

    -Second Auditorium Bonds, for additional $500,000 issue defeated May 19, 1914. Architect Walker Mathews appointed as associate Auditorium architect. Same bonds carried at initial election, June 12, 1914.

    -Auditorium Advisory Commission approved by City Council.

    -Dedication of Auditorium, April 30, 1915.

  9. Randolph Belle on February 17, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    A proposal was also made in 2007 by the Schwartz Foundation and since, to incorporate the building into a multi-purpose regional arts center and convention complex, with BART, Laney and the Oakland Museum adjacent. The proposal called for an immediate opening of the Calvin Simmons Theater, which by many accounts, has the best acoustics of any facility in the area. Oakland has several existing stable cultural organizations and several others that could be lured to the city, which could collectively maintain a venue of that size, as rehearsal and performance space, and achieve the financial sustainability mandate. The goal was to get a portion of the facility in productive, use while an operator for the arena was secured and a community benefit strategy was developed. A couple of international concert production companies were also in play during that time, along with a local developer.

    Two tidbits about the building that I like are that the building originally opened with a festival, “Dance of a Thousand Colors”, and that, as Annalee Allen said, was home to the original Oakland Art Museum.

    As another previous writer commented, the Torpedo Factory model from Virginia is exciting, as it brings about 800,000 people to Alexandria annually. The Yerba Buena Center model in SF would also work well, as the Kaiser would provide space for visual arts, performing arts, new media, educational and event-based activities.

    Oakland needs and deserves a world-class arts facility just like any other world-class, international city. If we wait to see what somebody will offer and propose for the space, we’ll get screwed again, and stuck with something that doesn’t benefit the residents of Oakland, as we don’t need what most people are selling- we need what we need, a dynamic economic engine, fueled by our greatest natural resource! That’s the commitment we should make to our citizens and the directive that we should give to any prospective bidders.

    Understanding, that financial times are difficult and the disbanding of redevelopment has created some unique challenges, desperation should not rule the day. From an African proverb- The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

  10. Rose Theresa on February 17, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    Vis-a-vis Mr. Belle: Recently have been hearing a lot about the 5M Project in SF. So very cool.

    Guess it takes a development company like Forest City to grow the tree once it’s planted…

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