San Francisco's historic Harding Theater, since 1926

The Harding Theater survives demolition to become Emporium

Per Caleb Pershan at on 12/8/17: "Emporium, a popular arcade bar and venue with three locations in Chicago, is giving an extra life to the historic Harding Theater on Divisadero. The palatial, 12,000-square-foot space, which opened in 1926 and once hosted concerts by the Grateful Dead, has been empty for the better part of two decades. But after years of repairs and buildout, the Harding will once again get buzzing–and whirring, beeping, and blinking–starting tonight."

"Emporium proprietors Danny and Doug Marks restored historic elements of the theater, like its intricate molding and ceiling, while removing other aspects, such as dilapidated seats. They leveled off the sloped balcony area, creating discrete, flat upper deck areas. The result is a sprawling bar (or two bars, one upstairs and one down) and gaming hall that's spread across four floors and a curved balcony.... Emporium holds more than 50 arcade games and pinball machines, plus traditional tabletop games like pool, foosball, skee-ball, and air hockey. With the theater setup still in place, it will also host live music and DJ events, plus movie nights courtesy of three large projector screens."

At 616 Divisadero Street, San Francisco's Harding Theater was purchased in 2003 by developers with initial plans to demolish it to build 16 condos. In response to community opposition, the San Francisco Planning Commission conducted an historical resource evaluation, concluding in 2008 that the Harding Theater is a landmark building. Following unsuccessful efforts to get City approval for a condominium/demolition plan, in April 2013, Divisadero Hayes LLC listed the Harding Theater.

In November 2015 a conditional use permit was granted to convert the main space into an arcade bar. A month later reported that thanks to the successful of SF real estate company DeRose & Appelbaum, Chicago-based Danny and Doug Marks would be bringing their Emporium arcade franchise to the Harding. shows photos of the theater just before work commenced. Extensive renovation efforts continued through the Fall of 2017. View Caleb Pershan's September 5 coverage here.

Following its Grand Opening weekend February 1-4, 2018, Emporium SF is now open seven days a week, Monday through Friday from 4pm-2am, and weekend hours from 2pm-2am. The restoration and transformation of this historic San Francisco theater is an impressive reminder that demolition of cultural spaces like the Harding should never be considered "inevitable." Times do change—and new opportunities for irreplacable venues like this appear for new generations. → PHOTOS AND EVENT NEWS AT EMPORIUMSF.COM

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.

The Harding is also rare because it has a full stage, scenery fly tower, stage wings, and dressing room space.

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.

The Friends Support a Full and Open Public Process for Exploring Reuse Options for the Harding

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.

The Friends Appeal and the Planning Commission's Decision

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 Future of the Harding Theater

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.

Harding Theater FAQ

Why the Friends of 1800 support the effort to save and reuse the Harding Theater. ››Read more

EIR/Project Alternatives Study Required

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

Friends' Appeal letter to Planning

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).

Developer Plan To Demolish Stage Presented at Un-noticed Hearing

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.


SF Bay Guardian - 01/20/09
Preserving Historic Preservation
The Historic Preservation Commission's intended role to strengthen the SF's commitment to historic preservation

SF Chronicle - 12/17/08
Fundraising effort for the Harding Theater

SF Bay Guardian - 11/14/08
Harding Theater - The Show Goes On
Planning's unanimous approval for a full Environmental Impact Report.

Curbed San Francisco - 11/14/08
Show's Over: Hard Knocks for Harding Theater
SF Curbed at odds with the EIR decision halting the condo/retail development plan.

SF Chronicle - City Insider - 11/14/08
Stage Fight
Developer intends to sell theater after unwillingness to preserve the stage and orchestra pit.

SF Bay Area Guardian - 11/12/08
Last Stand at the Harding Theater!
Article includes letter from Richard Reineccius, founder of SF's Neighborhood Arts Program and co-founder of the Julian Theater of SF.

SF Chronicle - 08/29/08
San Francisco Plan for Old Theater

SF Examiner - 08/13/08
Fight for Theater Begins Second Act

Beyond Chron - 04/20/05
Harding Theater/San Francisco's Public Hearing Process is Broken. "The biggest obstacle to a resolution that satisfies all sides appears to be the mechanism for ensuring that the developers, or their successors, keep the commitment not to demolish."

SF Bay Guardian - 02/02/05
Offscreen Drama: Who will win the fight over the Harding Theater?

SF Bay Guardian - 01/26/05
Letter by Jim Siegel to SF Bay Guardian
"The need is for affordable housing, not more expensive condos."