San Francisco's historic Harding Theater is in jeopardy. In 2003, developers purchased the Harding with initial plans to demolish it to build 16 condos. In response to community opposition to the demolition plan and subsequent plans that would compromise its future use as a theater, the San Francisco Planning Commission conducted an historical resource evaluation. The Planning Commission concluded the Harding Theater is a landmark building. According to the City, "by multiple California Register criteria, the Harding Theater would appear to be both separately eligible and eligible as a contributor to the American single-screen Movie Theater resource type, in consideration as an historical resource for purposes of CEQA."
Following three unsuccessful efforts to get approval by the City for a condominium/demolition plan, in April 2013, Divisadero Hayes LLC listed the Harding Theater at an increased price of $4.3 million. Formed in 2011, Neighbors Developing Divisadero continues outreach to neighbors, investors, community groups, merchants, and local government officials to support a community-minded, collaborative, and financially sustainable plan to revitalize the Harding Theater.
The Harding Theater opened in May 1926 as a sister theater in the Samuel H. Levin theater chain, which included the Balboa, Alexandria, Coliseum, Metro, and Empire theaters. The Harding was designed by the Reid Brothers, a prominent San Francisco architectural firm that was a prolific theater designer, and whose works include the Fairmont Hotel, the 1909 Cliff House, and Mission, Balboa, and Galileo high schools.
The Reids designed 14 movie theaters in San Francisco alone, including the National Register New Mission Theater, and the Alexandria, Metro, Balboa, Coliseum, and Avenue theaters. Other notable Reid theaters include the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland and the Golden State Theater in Monterey. The only operating Reid Brothers theater in San Francisco is the Balboa, which was heavily damaged by fire during the 1970s.
The Harding is the most intact of the Reid Brothers theaters in San Francisco and still appears much as it did in the 1920s. The theater retains original seats and the fire curtain dating to the opening of the theater. The entrance, floor and aisle plan, balcony, proscenium arch, stage, and decorative ceiling remain intact, as well as significant plaster detail. The auditorium is unique in retaining an original sense of place from the “pre-talkie” days.
None of the Reids’ other San Francisco theaters had full stage facilities. Today, San Francisco has only five movie theaters left with intact stage houses. Among these, the Harding is the only neighborhood theater.
The Harding has a long history of serving the community as a neighborhood movie/vaudeville house during the 1920s, as a single screen movie theater until 1960, as the Lamplighters’ theater during the 1960s, as a music venue during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and as a church and community center for 30 years until 2003.
In 2003, developers purchased the Harding with plans to demolish it to build 16 condos. Without consideration of the Harding's historic merit, the San Francisco Planning Commission voted to approve demolition and the condo plan in December 2004.
A coalition of community and preservation organizations, including the Friends of 1800, successfully banded together to contest the Planning Department’s action before the Board of Supervisors. As a result of this effort, the Board sent the project back to the Planning Department in the spring of 2005 for further review.
At the end of 2007, the developers rolled out their new plan for the Harding. They now plan to demolish the Harding’s stage and stage house to build eight condominiums at the rear of the lot. The rest of the theater would be converted to commercial space. The plan contemplates leveling the auditorium floor and removing all theater seats to build a 35-car capacity underground parking garage, partitioning the theater into numerous commercial spaces, and demolishing the original entrance and historic balcony access.
The Planning Department issued a proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration (PMND) for the project. The PMND means that despite these changes, the project would not have a significant impact on the historic value of the Harding Theater.
In October 2008, the Friends filed an appeal from the PMND, arguing that the project would have several unmitigated adverse environmental impacts, including demolishing the stage house and irreversibly converting the Harding, from a theater and public space into private commercial spaces. The Friends’ appeal letter of October 28 to the Planning Department includes Attorney Arthur D. Levy's history of the development project as well as arguments why the PMND should be rejected and an EIR required.
On November 13, 2008, the Planning Commission unanimously upheld the Friends’ appeal, ruling that an EIR is required. The Friends applaud this far-sighted decision, which will create a genuine public dialogue over reuse options for the Harding, including potential reuse of the stage for live performance. Click here for the Friends’ press release on the hearing.
The Harding Theater has a long history as a movie theater, live performance venue, and community center. The Harding is unusual among San Francisco movie theaters in having full stage facilities. It is a rare public resource because there are no other buildings in the Western Addition that could serve as performance/community centers, and it is unlikely that any will be built in the foreseeable future. The Harding, as an intact 1920s theater designed by master architects, is therefore a public resource not to be treated lightly.
Although the Friends would prefer to see the Harding Theater revitalized as a multiple-use performing arts center and theater that will accommodate community use, the Friends are not fixed on any particular reuse outcome. They support a public process that will accommodate all voices in the community, including the Harding’s owners, Western Addition residents and merchants, the theater community, the preservation community, San Francisco’s theater heritage community, and the African-Americans who worshipped and assembled at the Harding for 30 years. Every effort should be made for all voices to be heard and for the Harding’s potential for community purposes to be thoroughly explored to achieve the very best possible reuse of the building. The outcome must await the process, which is still unfolding. [See the Friends’ Frequently Asked Questions regarding the Harding reuse for more information.]
In the aftermath of the November 13, 2008 Planning Commission decision, a coalition of community, theater, and preservation groups is meeting to develop a responsible alternative reuse plan for the Harding.
Why the Friends of 1800 support the effort to save and reuse the Harding Theater. ››Read more.
On November 13, 2009, the Planning Commission voted 7-0 to uphold the Friends’ appeal and require an Environmental Impact Report for the Harding Theater conversion project. ››Read more.
The Friends appeal letter of October 28, 2009 to the Planning Department includes Attorney Arthur D. Levy's history of the development project as well as arguments for the EIR. ››Click here to view (PDF).
On August 13, 2009, the sponsor of the Harding condominium project presented a revised plan to demolish the stage and stage fly to build 8 condo units. ››Read more.
"I sent two architects with whom I've been working ... to see the space and give me their opinion of what could be developed if the stage was lopped off.... We discovered that the loss of the stage... and the high fly above the stage, will certainly doom this building to piece by piece demolition." »»Read Ron Merk's letter to the Planning Commission.
"Congratulations on bringing some sanity to our lives. Losing so many local theatres has been painful —without them, we lose a core resource ..." »»Read letter from Paul Quinn to the Friends.