.Henry J. Gets Ready to Play

Henry J. Kaiser Center for the Arts remodel on track

The beautiful Beaux Arts building that opened on Oakland’s 10th Street in 1915 was originally called the Oakland Civic Auditorium. During its time under that name, it served as an infirmary during the 1918 flu epidemic, hosted a classic Christmas pageant for decades and reverberated to the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. as he spoke in 1962, marking the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Over the years, the Grateful Dead played the facility 57 times.

Time, however, began to take its toll. A mid-’80s renovation saw the building renamed the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in 1984. Events continued to be held there, but in 1989, the 215,000-square-foot building suffered significant damage in the Loma Prieta earthquake. In 2005, its owner, the city of Oakland, closed the center, which did not meet modern building codes and was not ADA-compliant.

Multiple plans were proposed for its restoration. Finally, in 2015, Emeryville-based Orton Development, Inc. signed a 99-year lease to rehabilitate the building, which was placed on the Registry of National Historic Places in 2021. It will reopen as the Henry J. Kaiser Center for the Arts by the end of 2024, said CEO Nathaniel Cornejo.

“Phase One of the redevelopment will be complete,” he said.”There will be further development as [potential tenants] express interest.”

A restoration priority, said Cornejo, has been “fidelity to [the building’s] original presentation,” while completely updating electrical and plumbing systems. The center’s 1,500-seat Calvin Simmons Theatre will reopen with a new grid, and capacity to hold modern performances’ thousands of pounds of lighting, sound and set equipment. A state-of-the-art sound system has been installed. The ornate ceiling is also being restored to its original grandeur, while the balcony, said Cornejo, has been “raised and re-pitched” for better sight lines.

Local and touring performing arts companies will have access to a mid-size venue not currently available in Oakland, he said. Many local groups have had to move out of Oakland to find an appropriate space for their performances, or have been performing in spaces too small for their real capacity, he added. “This will fill that gap,” he said.

The HJK Center management has “been in talks” with multiple local arts groups about possible residencies, said the center’s arts & community development manager, Drusilla Cowan, and is encouraging other groups to make contact about what possibilities may exist for cooperation.

The center also houses a 25,000-square-foot arena, which is already booked to return to its rollerskating glory days on May 8 with Drag Around the Rink—Lakeshore LGBTQ Cultural District Skating Fundraiser.

The restoration has added Lakeview Terrace, a 20-foot-deep deck that runs the 400-foot length of the Center, facing Lake Merritt and providing views of Alexander Stirling Calder’s “The Seven Riches of the Earth,” friezes carved into niches on the building’s face. The Terrace will be open for lunch breaks, intermissions and possibly events when the center opens, and has a channel built underneath to facilitate crew access for future productions.

“What we hope all this means for the Oakland arts community,” Cowan said, “is that the center will become an essential gathering point. It will keep arts groups in Oakland and become a hub.” Cowan noted the center’s immediate proximity to Lake Merritt, the Oakland Museum of California and Laney College.

Cornejo believes an active HJK Center for the Arts will “create new opportunities for Oakland to be in new conversations” about events booking into the city. This will include conventions, as the center’s two ballrooms, in addition to its other facilities, will be ideal for conventions of appropriate sizes and, potentially, will open business opportunities for local vendors.

He also urged Oakland residents to be aware that events are happening in the center now, even before the full, formal re-opening. Besides Drag Around the Rink, the Emerald Cup Cannabis Celebration is scheduled for Aug. 17-18 in the Calvin Simmons ballroom, and the Pacific Bonsai Expo on Oct. 26-27 in the arena.

“We have been approved for programming now,” he said. “And many people will simply enjoy seeing how the building is being fully restored.”

For more information on current programming at the center, visit www.hjkarts.com.

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