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Historic Theater's Retrofit a Tough Act to Stage

The landmark Herbst Theatre in San Francisco's War Memorial Veterans Building will look much the same when theatergoers return in September—if all goes according to plan. But finishing in time for reopening night will not be easy, thanks to the two-year project's many headaches.

Crews have been careful not to damage historic elements during the theater's seismic retrofit and building systems upgrade.

"Making the grand reopening will be tight, a nail-biter," says Tara Lamont, the city's project manager for the $108-million retrofit. The city is also the project's architect.

The 240,000-sq-ft building is a landmark because, among other events, it hosted the 1945 signing of the United Nations Charter. All the upgrade's new building systems, including earthquake-resisting shear walls, electrical conduit, ductwork and piping, must not compromise the building's historic fabric.

"Like Humpty Dumpty, we took it apart and are putting it back together again, but safer," Lamont says.

The price tag includes a 17.5% contingency due to the complex nature of the seismic upgrade and preservation issues. Without value engineering, the project would have been at least $20 million over budget, according to Lamont.

To contend with rising costs and the unknowns inherent in renovating a historic building, the team created alternative scopes that separated out the must-have components from the nice-to-have ones. For example, the $200,000 lift mechanism for the orchestra pit survived. "The one in use was not safe and we would have had to lock it down," Lamont says.

Some budget and programmatic compromises had to be made due to the cost of preserving historic features, such as the expensive—but not functional—skylights, says Elizabeth Murray, managing director of the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center.

"In [renovating] a building of this age, there are always so many unforeseen costs," she adds. "We were constantly having to come up with alternative ways to do things."

The four-story, Arthur Brown Jr.-designed building opened in 1932 as part of a Beaux Arts-style civic center that included city hall and the War Memorial Opera House, which is a War Memorial Veterans Building twin. In 1989, the magnitude-7.1 Loma Prieta quake damaged all three buildings. Subsequently, city hall and the opera house underwent seismic retrofits, leaving the veterans building the most vulnerable to quake damage.

Lamont, who managed the opera house's seismic retrofit 18 years ago, returned to find this an even more challenging project. Numerous occupants had renovated the veterans building over the years, which resulted in lots of unwelcome discoveries. "We kept uncovering walls behind walls and hidden ceiling structures," Lamont says.

The site and building contained hazardous materials, including asbestos and contaminated soil that had to make way for new electrical vaults. "Sequencing of demolition and abatement efficiently became key," Lamont adds.

As part of a collaborative delivery strategy that included preconstruction services, Oakland-based Charles Pankow Builders Ltd. serves as both general contractor and construction manager (GC-CM). Pankow advised bidding the demolition and hazardous materials contract as a package. Covina-based Cleveland Wrecking Co., which also worked on the opera house, won the contract.

In the building, crews removed about 30% more material than originally envisioned because of limited access during investigations, says Aaron Drumm, Cleveland's project manager. "We had to keep opening more ceilings and walls [because] crawl spaces architects had planned to use didn't have enough room" for access to install ductwork, wiring and other systems, he adds.