Barbara Ockel crouches at the entrance of a crawlspace under the stage of the Bayview Opera House, retracing her discovery of the building's long-hidden, 3,000-square-foot hardwood floor. It had long been considered lost, supposedly ripped up to make way for linoleum. But shining a light in the crawlspace revealed that the original floor had been covered, not removed, and thus preserved well enough for a brilliant restoration.
"Removing that old floor, you can't even imagine — it's like the building breathes a sigh of relief," she says.
More than a century ago, this gymnasium-sized building at the corner of Third Street and Oakdale Avenue was the first San Francisco stop for stage acts coming from back East, but it eventually fell into disrepair. The city-owned building "looked like a warehouse. It was very crude, and not well maintained," says Kevin Hussey, owner of California Wood Floors in Redwood City, which specializes in preserving and restoring flooring in the Bay Area's older mansions.
Nonetheless, Ockel, a longtime Bayview resident, has long thought the Opera House could help revitalize this portion of the Bayview into a sort of second Fillmore District, with concerts, art installations, classes, and other cultural attractions.
When she became interim director of the nonprofit that runs the Opera House in July 2009, Ockel imagined a key to the neighborhood's revitalization might be found in the building's underbelly. But records kept by previous directors said the floor had been replaced with plywood. "I don't believe everything people tell me. I just like to look for myself," she says. So in March, she took a flashlight and went under the floor. "I saw all these planks, and that didn't look like plywood to me." It was the original 1888 Douglas fir boards, mostly intact.
This July, thanks to a $197,000 federal earmark obtained with the help of Nancy Pelosi, the Opera House's interior again became the golden-floored concert hall it was more than a century ago. Ockel used part of the grant money to restore the antique-stenciled proscenium arch that frames the stage, re-creating, in part, what a century ago was one of the Bay Area's top performance venues outside downtown San Francisco.
"The sound just blossomed around us, it was so full and rich," says Ben Simon, musical director of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, which played at the Opera House on Nov. 6. "We rarely get that full and rich a sound from a hall."
As restaurants and other businesses have lately taken root near the Opera House (a boutique gardening center and a trendy Ritual coffeehouse have opened recently, and Radio & Africa Kitchen restaurant is scheduled to open early next year), perhaps this newly uncovered jewel could help toward renewal of San Francisco's run-down southeast corner.
The area surrounding the Opera House has long been the target of grandiose plans to undo its reputation for crime, unemployment, and neglect. Mayor Gavin Newsom used to invite reporters to watch him play basketball in the neighborhood, suggesting that jobs and hope for the Bayview would be his administration's driving theme. It wasn't.
The Hunters Point Shipyard redevelopment plan, which would add 10,500 apartments to the area, has stalled with the economy. Newsom let plans to rebuild the crime-ridden Double Rock and Oakdale projects uphill from the Opera House languish. Even the nonprofit that runs the building has been hit with the Bayview pox. In 2007 the director stepped down amid claims of financial mismanagement, and a replacement resigned after clashing with the board.
Turning around a struggling neighborhood is a lot to ask, but Ockel says the Opera House can make Oakdale Avenue a destination. "It absolutely will turn the tide, because so many people who have come in who said they were amazed this space existed here," she says. "We have this great space, we have this great sound. How about putting on a production here?"
During the 1880s the Bayview, then known as South San Francisco, was mostly scattered cottages, farms, and slaughterhouses considered remote from downtown. When the Masons' South San Francisco Lodge No. 212 built the Opera House in 1888 as a performance hall abutting their lodge, it became the first significant cultural building in the city's suburbs, hosting dances, fairs, rallies and benefits, minstrel and vaudeville shows, and dramas such as Richard III and Uncle Tom's Cabin. In 1976, the city Arts Commission took over and used it for performances, classes, and activities. But by the mid-2000s, it was running out of money.
Ockel, who had worked as an art consultant to dot-com companies, was appalled to see the Opera House sitting underused, and joined the board of directors. In July 2009, she was appointed interim director. She discovered the Pelosi earmark money, given in 2004 to restore the whole building, had a use-it-or-lose it deadline that was about to expire. It wasn't enough money for a full restoration, so Ockel set her sights downward. A partial restoration focusing on the floor might be enough to transform the whole space, she thought.
She brought in Hussey, who fell in love with the project, and agreed to complete it at his own cost. "I work with a lot of people with a lot of money, and sometimes those people don't appreciate what they've got," he says. "But I could see, through walking the floors with Barbara, and seeing people filtering in and out of what was obviously a community-based project, that it's not always about money."
Ockel still has a lot to do before she considers the Opera House truly restored. The balcony is still unusable because it doesn't meet seismic standards. She is seeking grants to landscape the parking lot next door. A city plan to build an outdoor theater in the Opera House yard sits on a shelf somewhere, unfunded. And the corner of Oakdale and Third is still considered a rough part of town.
But the Opera House is a bright spot. It recently hosted a 300-kid summer camp, and now has 170 local children enrolled in afterschool and preschool programs. "I would love to get some major jazz acts here. I would like to get some other plays here," Ockel says. "This is just dreaming at this point, but maybe we could get the Magic Theatre to do a performance here, or the San Francisco Mime Troupe. One of the things I'd love to do is have some kind of collaboration with Yoshi's. And we've talked about a music and food night with Radio Africa & Kitchen."
You hear that, promoters, agents, teachers, artists, entrepreneurs, and impresarios? This is your chance to get in on the Bayview's ground floor.