Long bearing the brunt of such derogatory remarks as Gertrude Stein’s legendary statement about Oakland, “There is no there there,” Oakland was intent upon uplifting its public image from its former stepchild status in the shadow of San Francisco’s glitter across the Bay. Having always known its appeal as an uncontested, affordable, pleasant place to live and work, Oakland’s plan was to re-fashion itself in the realms of play, leisure-time entertainment and artistic pursuits.
Oakland’s city government proposed the development of a cultural renaissance to complement its redevelopment activities by developing a city-wide arts policy, empowering the Oakland Arts Council to facilitate the growth of the Oakland arts community, and developing the new multi-tenant Alice Arts Center. Willis was retained by the city’s redevelopment agency to plan a vertical cultural complex in a 10-story former women’s athletic club building, circa 1927.
The Alice Arts Center is a pioneering project and became home to several arts groups, which includes the Oakland Ensemble Theatre (OET), Oakland Ballet School, Mandeleo Institute, City Center Dance Theatre, and the City of Oakland Arts Council. OET occupies the largest amount of space, thereby having a special relationship to the Center. The diverse activities of each arts group create a synergy that lets each group reach a wider audience through sharing the building with others.
The design objective was to produce a visually and architecturally exciting and functionally responsible arts center for OET, dance studios and other support facilities, arts galleries, offices for arts service organizations, and a small movie house. The plan called for renovation and adaptation of the basement the first three floors and the mezzanines of the former club. The fourth through tenth floors remained residential. A restaurant with a sidewalk cafe was to be located on the ground floor.
The intent of the facade rehabilitation design was to convey a sense of excitement going on within the building, using color, banners and lights with only small structural changes, but those symbolic of a theatrical space full of arts activities. The signage on the front of the Arts Center was to be Parisian in spirit and reminiscent of European festivals. Colorful signs and banners were to be hung at different levels, each one identifying a tenant. To be consistent with the age of the building, Willis proposed to employ a palette of paint and plaster, creating trompe l’oeil effects [the illusion of three-dimensionality painted on a one-dimensional flat surface] as a wonderful theatrical and inexpensive means to achieve architectural illusions.
The design of the Oakland Ensemble Theatre design takes advantage of 20 years of modern evolution in designs for small, flexible theatres that are rooted in the European traditional Shakespearean theatres. I wanted to create a space that permits both conventional and experimental performances by easily transforming the theatre into proscenium, thrust, or in-the-round stage areas.
The 400-seat modular, flexible proscenium-thrust-theatre – in-the-round house was converted from a 1927 700-seat proscenium stage auditorium, using a mix of contemporary technology and 18th century theatrical design concepts and box seats.
Oakland Ensemble Theatre was founded in 1974 led by artistic director Benny Ambush. The former community theatre has become Oakland’s premier professional troupe. This all black company produces and performs new work, principally plays written by black playwrights. The Oakland Ensemble Theatre construction work was completed in 1985. The work on the rest of the building was never completed.