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City Arts and Lectures finds new home in old school theater

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Founder Sydney Goldstein, left, is looking forward to City Arts and Lectures’ first event at the restored Nourse Auditorium next week. “It’s going to be cool,” she says. - ANNA LATINO/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Anna Latino/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Founder Sydney Goldstein, left, is looking forward to City Arts and Lectures’ first event at the restored Nourse Auditorium next week. “It’s going to be cool,” she says.

Inside the Nourse Auditorium on Hayes Street, construction and sound crews are working diligently to upgrade the 86-year-old facility.

Scaffolding that rises to the ceiling on the side walls is assisting in the installation of acoustic paneling, sound engineers are finalizing checks on speakers and lighting fixtures are awaiting installation.

The roughly 1,600-seat venue looks like a typical construction site. But all the remnants of that work will be gone by Friday as City Arts and Lectures prepares for its test opening Monday night, an event at which businesswoman Sheryl Sandberg will be interviewed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in front of a sold-out audience.

“I’m nervous,” said Sydney Goldstein, executive director for City Arts and Lectures, a nonprofit organization she started in 1980. “There’s a lot to get done. I’ve not been sleeping too well this past week, but it’s a pleasant kind of anxiety. It’s going to be cool.”

The upgrades to the Nourse Auditorium, include new flooring and seats on the main floor, new lighting and acoustics, among other changes, began nine months ago in anticipation of City Arts and Lectures’ move. The cost of all the upgrades to the auditorium, which hasn’t been used for more than 25 years, is $1.13 million, paid for by donations.

City Arts and Lectures has been housed in the Herbst Theatre since its inception. The organization showcases lectures, onstage conversations, performances and film tributes featuring writers, critics, performing artists and scientists. But the lecture series and other organizations housed in the Herbst Theatre must leave by May when the War Memorial Opera House, where the theater is located, starts a two-year seismic retrofitting project.

When Goldstein received word of the retrofit, she knew she wanted to move her organization to the Nourse Auditorium.
The theater was built in 1927 and served as the auditorium for Commerce High School until 1953. In the 1970s, the floor was raised and the space became a courtroom where the famous asbestos hearings in the 1980s took place, according to San Francisco Unified School District officials.

“This use went on for a number of years,” district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said. “At the end of those hearings the district started using the space as a storage area.”

Today, the school district still uses the attached school building for district offices.

The organizations entered into a three-year agreement, with an option to extend it by another three years. Goldstein said her group already plans to extend its stay.

“I’ve put too much heart, money and energy into this,” Goldstein said. “I don’t know that I’m moving back.”

akoskey@sfexaminer.com