Presidio Theatre Comes Back to Life

By Jean Schiffman

Paying homage to its origins and historic roots, the stunning new state-of-the-art performance venue provides a much-needed additional event space to the Bay Area

The simple sign above the front entrance of the Spanish Colonial Revival-style building reads: Presidio Theatre. It dates back to when this was a movie house, built by the Army in 1939 to entertain the troops on its San Francisco base, its construction funded by the WPA to the tune of $171,033. There were occasional live performances here, too: Bob Hope, Jack Benny.

            The Army left in 1994, and the theater has been abandoned since 1995. It was not until about five years ago that Peggy Haas, of the Bay Area’s philanthropic Haas family, was strolling through the Main Post, saw it and realized it would be the perfect mid-sized house for the city’s thriving nonprofit performing arts community.

            The derelict space had been stripped of everything right down to the toilet paper holders. It would take major work, under the auspices of the Presidio Trust, and it would all be done according to historical guidelines that were reviewed by the National Park Service and the California Office of Historic Preservation.

            The $30 million restoration began in 2017, thanks to the Margaret E. Haas Fund. It opens this month.

            “It had just been sitting there,” explains executive director Robert Martin, who came on staff in 2018 after 16 years at a Santa Fe performing arts center; before that, he ran Fort Mason’s Cowell Theatre. “The seats were a little moldy, paint was chipping. We took all the seats out, took the place down to the bone structurally, so we started from scratch in a way.” For example, the terra cotta tiles and drainpipes were removed in order to repair the roof and then replaced atop the building in exactly the same way, unaltered. The curves in the lobby, the height and size of things, the paint colors and other such details, many of them invisible to the public, were strictly adhered to.

            The biggest challenge was how to turn a movie house into a live performance space for dance, music and other performing arts while staying within those guidelines. But the Presidio Trust, after first questioning it from a historical viewpoint, ultimately recognized the necessity to create a viable playing area and approved expanding the proscenium arch by 12 to 14 feet. The stage, with a new floor, is now 29 feet deep.

            The seats themselves - “18 inches wide for military tushies,” says Haas - were widened by a few inches. “We found the company that made the actual molds back in 1939,” she explains, “and were able to copy the profiles of the seats” while upgrading them.

            Now, with a capacity of 600 (compared to the original 850 to 900), the Presidio Theatre fits into a tidy niche among the city’s mid-size houses such as Herbst Theater’s 892, Yerba Buena Center’s 757 and Cowell Theatre’s 437. In mid-summer, the seats still draped with plastic tarps (“Not a bad seat in the house - I’ve checked every one personally,” declares Haas) and the stage a beehive of construction activity, the house felt intimate, clean and stream-lined, with cream-colored walls and restored anemostat lighting. Because it was built for screening films, it had only a projection booth, so a tech booth had to be added in the middle of the house.

            If the footprint of the building itself could not be altered, a whole new building could be created underground; the basement had been nothing more than dirt and rat-proofing and could be excavated to build - along with an adjacent basement at the same level - a lower lobby and concession area, offices, a rehearsal room, public restrooms (22 stalls in the women’s), dressing rooms with showers, a green room. A new outdoor pavilion has been added as well; the eucalyptus trees, hills and native plants that surround the building create a bucolic atmosphere.

            This isn’t the first time that the Presidio Theatre has attracted attention. In 2000, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Robert Redford’s Sundance planned to transform the “musty Moderne-style theater” into a cineplex. The money for that project never came through, says Haas.

            The Presidio Theatre, in all its humble glory, is a boon for the live arts community, always hard-pressed for suitable space. It is one of the last buildings to be rehabilitated on the Main Post. Says Martin, “The (rental) rates we’re starting out with are competitive with other spaces in the Presidio and around town, and we’re going to be flexible. There will be a base fee, but we’ll work with groups so it’s affordable for them.” The Theatre will also present and co-present some of the productions; the fall calendar includes presentations by Ensemble Ballet Folklorico, SF Ethnic Dance Festival, LIKHA-Pilipino Folk Ensemble, ODC, music from Puerto Rico by John Santos and his Sextet, Andrew Evans’ magic show, the SF Silent Film Festival, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, BATS Improv and more. Martin also expects to program film, lectures, exhibits and corporate events. Free parking abounds, and the Presidio offers shuttle service from downtown.

            “The city needs this,” says Haas, whose only regret is that her father, Peter Haas, who set up the nonprofit Margaret E. Haas Fund in his will, is not here to see it. “I think the theater is so happy to be alive again,” she says. “You can feel it.”


Presidio Theatre

99 Moraga Ave.,
The Presidio


Ticketed celebration Sept. 21 with White Crane Lion & Dragon Dance Association, SF Girls Chorus, Beach Blanket Babylon and Te Mana O Te Ram (Tahitian performance)

Free open house with tours Sept. 22, noon to 5pm. See website for details.