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The Strand, American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Project Name

The Strand, American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)

Project Status


Year Completed



20,000 sq. feet

Construction Cost



American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.)


  • Lighting design consultant: PrichardPeck Lighting, Inc. Historic preservation consultant: Page & Turnbull, Inc. Theater consultant: The Shalleck Collaborative, Inc. Acoustic engineer, security, and telecommunications consultant: Charles M. Salter Associates, Inc. Development manager, project manager, and financing consultant: Equity Community Builders, LLC MEP design engineers: WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff LEED consultant: Rick Unvarsky Consulting Services, Inc.


  • General Contractor: Plant Construction Co.
  • Civil Engineer: BKF Engineers
  • : Anderson Rowe & Buckley, Inc.
  • Electrical Engineer: Decker Electric
  • Plumbing Engineer: Pribuss Engineering

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Text by Katie Gerfen

Long before San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood was given its current development-happy sobriquet to lure high-tech companies, the Strand Theater was a fixture there. The building played host, for most of the last century, to various sorts of entertainment. It opened as a silent-movie house, became an anchor of the city’s Cinema Row in the 1950s (replete with a Las Vegas–style marquee), and ended its run as a venue for adult films before being raided by the city in the early aughts and falling into disuse. But throughout the building’s dramatic career, its infrastructure remained intact, and in 2015, an enlightened renovation by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) welcomed audiences of a different type: those seeking out live theater.

As the new home of the American Conservatory Theater, the Strand has been restored with a vivid red street façade; inside, wherever possible, signs of the old building remain, including traces of the old floor plates left exposed on the refinished walls, and the outline of the original grand onyx staircase on the lobby floor. A two-story LED screen in the lobby recalls the building’s cinematic past, and letters from the old marquee were salvaged and hung above the lobby café.

A new 285-seat live theater venue has been inserted into the old plaster-walled auditorium, and new sound and lighting systems were installed to highlight the action on the proscenium stage. (A second, 120-seat black-box theater sits atop the main one, along with an education space.) So while remnants of the past remain, SOM reworked them in contemporary ways; this was very much a renovation, not a slavish preservation. Nor should it have been: The new Strand reinvigorates San Francisco’s live-theater scene and a stretch of Market Street that will serve as a hub for a whole new generation of thrill-seekers.

Project Credits
Project: The Strand, American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco
Client/Owner: American Conservatory Theater
Architect/Structural Engineer/Environmental Graphics/Interior Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, San Francisco . Michael Duncan, FAIA (design director); Gene Schnair, FAIA (managing partner); Mark Sarkisian (structural and seismic engineering partner); Maurice Hamilton, (senior technical designer); Gayle Tsern Strang, AIA (project manager); Neville Mathias (senior structural engineer); Aaron Jensen, AIA (senior design architect); Lonny Israel (graphic design studio lead)
General Contractor: Plant Construction Co.
Development/Project Manager and Financing Consultant: Equity Community Builders
Historic Certification/Preservation: Page & Turnbull
Theater Consultation: The Shalleck Collaborative
Lighting Design: PritchardPeck Lighting
Acoustics, Security, Telecom: Charles M. Salter Associates
Civil Engineering: BKF Engineers
M/E/P Design, Code Analysis, Life/Fire Safety: WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff
Mechanical Design Build Engineers: Anderson Rowe & Buckley
Electrical Design/Build Engineers: Decker Electric Co.
Plumbing: Pribuss Engineering
LEED: Rick Unvarsky Consulting Services
Size: 20,000 square feet
Cost: $16 million

This article appeared in the May 2016 issue of ARCHITECT magazine.

Read all of ARCHITECT's coverage of the 2016 AIA Honor Awards

Project Description


SOM's renovation of the Strand Theater resurrects the 100-year-old movie theater on San Francisco’s Market Street to provide a highly visible and experimental performance space for the city’s preeminent theater company, American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.). 

In addition to educational facilities, the redefined space houses a new 285-seat theater, stage support, a public lobby, a cafe, and a 120-seat black box theater and rehearsal space. The program is inserted within the shell of the former 725-seat cinema, overlaying essential modern theater elements on top of the raw backdrop of the original building. 

The SOM design creates inspiring civic theater and dramatically opens the lobby and facade to the street and sidewalk, energizing both the building and the surrounding neighborhood. The Strand Theater is strategically located between the city’s booming retail district and the Civic Center, in the midst of fast-growing tech and residential developments that have recently relocated to the area. The restored theater represents a key component in the regeneration of this once vital part of the city. 

The dramatic rebirth of a theater built in 1917 on San Francisco's Market Street created a stellar new venue for live theatre that pays homage to the original wherever possible.

The Strand Theater was a derelict structure after 2003, when a vice raid closed down its last incarnation, a porn theater. Restoring it as a home for a theater company was an important piece of the city's revitalization of the long-deteriorating neighborhood, which included construction of a landmark federal building immediately behind the Strand.

From the first approach, the new Strand reveals itself to be a lively place, a home of creativity. What had been a cramped, single-story lobby has been opened up three stories high, so that the brightness and activity inside seem partnered with the life on the sidewalk.

Once inside, visitors find a space whose several levels of walkways suggest a multi-level stage set, with a two-story LED screen that harks back to the theater's days showing movies, and letters salvaged from the old marquee that spell out STRAND hanging above the cafe. While contemporary staircases and ramps replaced a grand onyx staircase, the old-timer's footprint is inscribed in the floor as a memorial.

In the main proscenium theater, original plaster walls, wall pilasters and ceiling details are intact, but overlaid with modern lighting and sound systems. At the top of the building stands a black box theater and education space, set against a two-story wall of original windows. Wood door surrounds in a neoclassical style were re-purposed to frame restroom doors. Even some remnant graffiti art from the building's darkest years was retained, in backstage areas.

A thoughtful pairing of historical elements and modern touches guarantees that the Strand will perform well into its second century.
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