Downtown Oakland has been in the news a lot in recent weeks, and not in altogether good ways. The Oscar Grant riots, although properly directed at BART and not the City of Oakland, certainly did not boost the city’s reputation. Meanwhile, a few Downtown projects (901 Jefferson, the Ellington, and 630 20th Street) have gone in default, and construction of a new 23-story high-rise, 601 City Center, is on hold. And although we mind these developments, we should not lose sight of the prize. Many components to Downtown revitalization were lined into place as part of former mayor Jerry Brown’s 10K initiative to attract 10,000 new residents to Downtown Oakland. Now, years later, Brown’s efforts to transform Downtown have finally begun to bear fruit in the form of new apartments and a burgeoning retail, restaurant, and nightlife district to support them — and, in the process, create a destination unto itself. Downtown’s day is not quite here yet, but it marches ever closer. And finally, after four decades, one piece of utmost importance will fall into place: the restoration of Oakland’s Fox Theater is complete, and the doors of this Uptown District jewel will, at long last, open to the public once again. The opening gala is planned for February 5.
|Top photo courtesy of
Fox Oakland Theater Restoration Project.
The theater we know as the Fox Oakland is actually the second theater in Oakland to bear that title. The first Fox, which opened on August 25, 1923, had 2,561 seats located at 1730 Broadway, occupying the long horizontal parcel that is now home to the Community Bank of the Bay. By 1925, the “first Fox” became an Orpheum, although Fox retained ownership for most of the life of the theater. Orpheum had previously used the theater at 574 12th Street, which was renamed the Twelfth Street Theater after Orpheum relocated; the Twelfth Street Theater was later demolished, and is now the site of the Federal Building’s south tower. The Fox Orpheum at 1730 Broadway was also demolished, in the 1960s during the construction of BART, long after it had closed. The Fox Oakland that still stands today opened at 1819 Telegraph Avenue on October 27, 1928, greeted by some 20,000 eager patrons on that day. With 3,338 seats, it was the largest theater on the West Coast when it opened; it remained one of the largest, but its title was supplanted in 1929 when the mammoth San Francisco Fox opened, and again in 1931, when Oakland’s slightly larger Paramount Theater opened. Both the 1928 Fox and the original 1923 Fox Orpheum were designed by San Francisco architecture firm Weeks and Day, who designed a handful of other Bay Area landmarks, including the California Theater in San Jose, and the Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Sir Francis Drake hotels in San Francisco. Maury Diggs was responsible for the construction of Fox Oakland and also designed the theater’s retail wings; other notable projects Diggs worked on in the Bay Area include the Latham Square Building at 1611 Telegraph, San Quentin Prison, Golden Gate Fields, and Bay Meadows. While the 1923 Fox Orpheum was conceived in an 18th century French style, the 1928 Fox Oakland had more unusual, exotic design that drew on Indian, Moorish, and Middle Eastern influences — enough so that the theater was supposed to be named the Bagdad, but then was simply named the Fox in 1929 when Fox merged with the West Coast theater chain. Fox Oakland was capped off with a dome, and it featured a Wurlitzer organ that was sold in 1960; the organ is now located in Shingletown, California.
|San Francisco Fox (1350 Market Street).
Courtesy of San Francisco Public Library.
Fox Oakland remained a popular entertainment destination for Oaklanders for a few decades after its opening, but theater patronage declined in the 1960s. Although there were occasional shows at the Fox into the 1970s, regular shows ceased in 1966, which is the typically-reported closure year. Timothy Pflueger’s Art Deco masterpiece, the Paramount Theater, followed suit, closing in 1970. The Paramount, though, was saved by the Oakland Symphony. It reopened and was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 — the very year that the Fox was the target of an arson fire. But Fox Oakland persevered. San Francisco also had a Fox Theater, located at 1350 Market Street (built in 1929, one year after Oakland’s) with 4,651 seats. In November 1961, over 59% of San Franciscans voted against Proposition I, whose passage would have authorized the city to acquire the theater, and thereby preserve it for future generations as a cultural and convention center. The San Francisco Fox was closed and demolished in 1963, and replaced in 1966 with the 29-story, 354-foot eyesore known as Fox Plaza. Little sign of the theater remains: save the namesake, and a half-hearted memorial on the ground floor of Fox Plaza. Oakland, too, experienced pressure to demolish its Fox, as in 1975, when the City of Oakland considered demolishing the theater to make way for a parking lot. But Oakland, unlike San Francisco, withstood the demolition pressure and held onto its Fox, and Oakland is much the better for it. Uptown is particularly lucky to have not just the Fox, but also the Paramount — two grand theaters in such close proximity, which, combined hold roughly six thousand patrons. In 1978, the DeLucchis and the Goodhues purchased Fox Oakland, with the hope that it might one day be restored; that same year, the theater was declared a city landmark under Mayor Lionel Wilson, and in 1979, it was entered on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1996, under Mayor Elihu Harris, the City of Oakland purchased the theater for $3 million. In 1999, the slow, expensive process of restoration began to trickle in, and in 2001, the dilapidated marquee and blade sign were replaced, as a public gesture to demonstrate commitment to the Fox. But without the superhuman commitment of Phil Tagami, it is unlikely that this treasure would have been restored in the same way or in the same amount of time. Early in the process, the restoration plan was scaled back to cut costs; under that plan, the Fox, which once had almost 3,400 seats, would have had only several hundred seats restored. The Fox surely deserved better, and Tagami led the charge to pull together over $70 million of funds from various sources, including the City of Oakland and Bank of America, that were ultimately necessary to fully restore Fox Oakland to its former grandeur.
|The Uptown (top) and The Grand (bottom).|
The Oakland School for the Arts will be housed behind the restored Fox Theater, adjacent to Fox Courts, which is a mixed-use project that will add retail and 80 units of affordable housing. Altogether, these projects are a major development that will enliven the block bounded by 18th, 19th, Telegraph, and San Pablo. But this block is only one part of the changing face of the Uptown District. Much of the Uptown triangle, once characterized by parking lots that blighted the urban landscape, has now been filled in with the first phase of The Uptown, mixed-use project with 665 residential units. And while there are aspects to this development that we might criticize — including a limited initial retail component, unambitious height in a location just steps from BART, and somewhat of a master-planned design feel, though less so than once conceived — the Uptown still adds open space, some retail, and more residents to Downtown. Meanwhile, a new dense residential district is taking shape near Broadway and Valdez Street, currently anchored by the first phases of 2300 Broadway and the Broadway-Grand, as well as Oakland’s newest high-rise, The Grand — all of which are just a short stroll from the Fox Theater. The Uptown, 2300 Broadway, and Broadway-Grand all have second phases, which combined would add several hundred additional units and close to 50,000 additional square feet of retail; still further projects in the area have been in the pipeline, and even once those are built out, nearby vacant lots remain that would be ideal locations for more mid- to high-rise residential projects with ground floor retail. And one day in the future, if the advice of the Conley Report is heeded, a retail district might replace the remaining car dealerships on the Broadway Auto Row, just to the north of the Broadway-Grand development. This would not only extend Downtown’s reach northward, but would also fill a long-standing void, by restoring to Oakland a vibrant central retail district of regional importance, which the city has notably lacked since the once-thriving retail along Broadway dried up. With some vision, this part of central Oakland could transform from sheer unrealized potential into a first-class urban destination. The Fox Theater is a particularly special component, to be sure, but it is just the beginning.
Downtown Oakland, like so many other American urban centers, has suffered from neglect during the past few decades, and it now struggles to reinvent itself in a new context. The Fox Theater managed to retain its prime spot at the bottom of Telegraph Avenue throughout most of the 20th century, and into the 21st century, watching the city around it change from bustling metropolis to near-abandoned ghost-town, and watching nearby storefronts be emptied out and boarded up. And yet, given Downtown’s many physical attributes — a handsome cityscape punctuated by delightful juxtapositions of old and new, formed by a collection of unique and distinctive districts; a central location with robust transportation access; and a palpable connection to the Bay Area’s surrounding natural beauty, both on the shores of Lake Merritt and through glimpses between high-rises of green hillsides in the distance — perhaps it is no small wonder that so many people in the Bay Area, and even within Oakland itself, have been perfectly willing to live out their days without making this evolving urban treasure a part of their lives. To be sure, fully revitalizing Downtown is a multidisciplinary task that exceeds city planners alone, and it is bigger than any single development project. But the restoration of the Fox Theater exemplifies what creative minds and committed civic pride can accomplish. Oakland could use more of both these days, as some of the current crop of city politicians (starting with the chief executive and his poorly-chosen appointment to the City Administrator post) do little to inspire confidence in the future. Indeed, it can sometimes be tempting to reminisce on decades long gone — when Broadway and Telegraph were vibrant, lined with theaters and active retail uses, and the streets were crowded with both people and streetcars — as opposed to the somewhat forlorn feeling Downtown sometimes still exudes today. But why should we fixate exclusively on the past? We’re sure of it: Downtown’s best days lie ahead, and it is both exciting and somehow comforting that the Fox Theater will play a key role in ushering in the renaissance.
Then and now: looking north up Telegraph toward the Fox, from Latham Square.