The interior of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center—formerly the Oakland Municipal Auditorium—has been a construction zone since late 2020, when the city of Oakland entered into a 99-year lease for the rehabilitation and operation of the 1915 Beaux-Arts-style building with Oakland Civic, LLC, an affiliate of Orton Development. The developer won the rights to the project in 2015

Few have had an opportunity or reason to visit the building—a city-designated Historic Landmark that’s on the National Register of Historic Places—since it was shuttered by the city in 2006 due to operating costs. But with the center currently on track to reopen in spring 2023 as the ‘Oakland Civic,’ The Oaklandside was given a sneak peek at the renovated space.

A recent rendering of the updates done to the outside of the building. Credit: Orton Development

The scale of the project is striking: The building is 215,000 square feet and three stories tall and includes the main 7,000-person arena or auditorium, the 1,900-seat Calvin Simmons Theatre, two large ballrooms, a smaller ballroom with views of the lake, a basement, ample corridors, and a parking lot that faces Lake Merritt.

A crew of about 60 has been working to return the center to its heyday as an arts and culture hub in Oakland. The construction will cost approximately $75 million for the entire building, according to Everardo Mora, project manager on-site for Orton Development—over $20 million above what was initially estimated in 2016.

According to Jean Walsh, a public information officer with the city of Oakland, another Orton Development affiliate, Oakland Civic and Calvin Simmons Theatre, Inc., will be responsible for leasing the arena and booking events at the theater, which will be managed as a separate nonprofit. That organization has already raised $18 million dollars, according to Mora. “We are halfway to our goal,” he said.

A combination of funding types was needed to complete the project, including tax credits and private financing. “It’s a very complicated capital set,” said Mora. But “the theatre itself is all donation-based,” he said about the Calvin Simmons Theatre, which faces the west end of the building. 

The Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center’s storied history

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The Grateful Dead is one of the bands that played in the convention center’s arena. Many bands and backstage crew members wrote notes on the walls to mark their presence. Credit: Amir Aziz

During its golden era, the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center hosted luminaries from the musical and political worlds. Elvis Presley, James Brown, and the Grateful Dead were among the artists that performed at the arena. World political figures like Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, and others also graced its hallways. In 1918, the auditorium served as a makeshift hospital during the Spanish flu pandemic. It served a less honorable purpose in 1924 when over 800 Klu Klux Klan members gathered inside the arena for a cross-burning ceremony

The Oakland Municipal Auditorium was in use as a temporary hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918.

Over the decades, the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center has also been home to a myriad of community events: Christmas beauty pageants, high school graduations (my own graduation from Oakland High School took place at the arena), rollerblading competitions, Black Panther Party gatherings, and much more. 

More recently, in 2012, Occupy Oakland protesters attempted to take over the building during its “move-in day,” which resulted in a violent clash with police and the arrest of over 400 people. This past March, a demolition crew discovered a mummified body inside one of the walls.

The 1915 Beaux-Arts-style building required expensive repairs

View of stage in the Oakland Municipal Auditorium Arena, circa 1914. Credit: Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center

After its closure in 2006, the building fell into disrepair. One of the bigger issues, Mora said, has been the extensive water damage. “The original rainwater leaders, [the pipes that connect the roof downspouts to the building’s draining system], were lead-sealed and lead-encased joints, and those over time crack,” he said. “That was the cause of the water damage. Not the roof.” Crews have had to open up walls to address the damage, he said.

Also expensive was the seismic retrofit of the building, which included the installation of rebar-reinforced concrete walls from the basement to the roof and reinforcement of the existing steel columns on the side of the arena. At the Calvin Simmons Theatre, an additional set of shear walls around the orchestra chamber were added, among other improvements. 

Other significant repairs included fixing fire damage in the electrical rooms in the basement, replacing all of the previously stripped copper wire, and repairing water lines. 

“It was a lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of time, but it’s a fantastic intervention for safety,” Mora said. 

On the outside of the building, a new promenade is being built below the seven dome-shaped sculptures that face Lake Merritt. The area will be open to the public and available to rent for private events. Three elevators that provide access from 10th Street are being installed to service every floor of the building, making the center fully ADA-compliant. 

The arena reimagined as office space

Left: View of the current construction within the convention center auditorium. Credit: Amir Aziz / Right: A 3-D view of what the updated arena will look like as office space. Photo courtesy Orton Development

Despite the work done so far, questions remain about how the arena will serve local organizations—and how many will use the redesigned space—once the project is completed. 

Orton Development’s plan does not utilize the arena as it historically has been used as an entertainment space. Instead, the arena’s main floor will be reenvisioned as an open-floor office space with partitions for commercial tenants. The theater-style seating will be preserved but not operational.

“We can’t change the seats. The armrests are low and too narrow, and the pathways between seats are too short,” Mora said of the audience seating that is no longer up to code.

In an email to The Oaklandside, Nick Orton, a partner at Orton Development, sent projected figures for what commercial and nonprofit tenants can expect to pay for office space at the convention center when it reopens sometime next year: Monthly rents will run between $3.50 and $4 per square foot in the main level, and from $2.50 to $2.75 per square foot in the basement level.

Orton said the company also has an agreement with the Black Arts Movement Business District to provide 5,000 square feet of main level space and 5,000 square feet of basement space to “arts organizations serving communities of color” at a discounted rate of $2.80 and $2 per square foot for the main level and basement, respectively.

Orton did not specify what requirements arts groups serving communities of color will need to meet to qualify for the reduced rates. 

The reimagining of the arena, in particular, hasn’t been without some controversy. The original 2016 plan for the space called for the entire auditorium side of the Beaux Arts building to be turned into market-rate office space, something that local non-profits and cultural organizations opposed. 

Now with lower pricing options for community nonprofits, there’s hope that the renovated building won’t suffer the same fate as the former Capwell’s/Sears building at 1955 Broadway, which has changed hands several times since being renovated. In 2017, Uber had plans to open offices in the building. But they sold it instead, and it was later leased by Square. That company’s plan to occupy the building also fell through, after the pandemic started. The building was sold again this past March for around $420 million.

Restoring the Calvin Simmons Theatre to its former glory

The Calvin Simmons Theatre looking down at the stage from the balcony. Credit: Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Center

Oakland Ballet’s artistic director Graham Lustig has been part of the conversations around the building’s renovation and its future since Orton Development won the rights to the project in 2015. 

“The idea of the recent revitalization of that part of the lake and the connection to the Oakland Museum, which is adjacent, spoke volumes to me about how we could create and develop a new performing arts center for the Oakland Community and beyond,” Lustig said. “So I’ve been very excited by that.” 

The Calvin Simmons Theatre will be re-arranged and have fewer seats overall (1,500, down from the original 1,900) with updated seating throughout. The orchestra pit has been expanded to accommodate 30 musicians, up from its original capacity of 14. The original architectural details will be left intact with small touch-ups. There will be new dressing rooms with better air-conditioning, cooling, and heating. 

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View of the Calvin Simmons Theatre orchestra seating from the right side of the balcony. Credit: Amir Aziz

The ballrooms—one on each side of the building and the smaller one with views of the lake—will be rented out to organizations for rehearsal space and private events. 

“We’ve gotten a lot of interest from arts groups, especially dance groups, to have this [one of the ballroms] as a rehearsal space. They’re very much interested in the capability to use this for larger dance ensembles,” Mora said. “It’s a great thing because you can have, for example, a little satellite office downstairs in the arena, come over and rehearse here. Or vice versa.”

Lustig is interested in finding a permanent place for the Oakland Ballet to call home that includes offices and, most importantly, a spacious rehearsal studio. But just how arts organizations like the Oakland Ballet would share ballroom space with private groups hosting events remains to be seen. Details around scheduling and other logistics will need to be ironed out. 

“When we’re doing production, we rehearse every Saturday and Sunday as well. So it doesn’t necessarily easily allow for shared use,” Lustig said. “That is the conundrum that has not yet been solved.” Still, Lustig is hopeful that by the time the building reopens, there will be a concrete plan to serve local organizations and private rentals best. 

“I’m excited to see what the future will hold and how this project is going to unfold for the ballet, but also for our community,” he said. “I cannot underestimate what an amazing gift it will be for everybody to have this performing arts venue.”

Mora sees the reopening of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center as an opportunity to serve youth with arts education and create jobs.

“I think there’s a need to showcase careers in the arts, production, and the nexus between technology and theater,” he said. “We’ve been talking to both Laney College and other arts groups about creating internship opportunities for folks to learn hands-on [about] building sets, costume design, makeup, and a bit of visual video and audio production, in addition to acting.” 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.