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.”
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