A Sound Improvement

The nomadic peoples of the world come in many forms. Few, however, have string, brass and woodwind sections among their population. Such was the case for the Napa Valley Symphony, which, for the past three years, roamed the Napa valley in search of venues to continue its myriad musical and education programs while its own space underwent a massive renovation.

Finally, the symphony has returned to its permanent residence at Lincoln Theater on the grounds of the Veterans Home of California in Yountville. The venue is now a thoroughly modern performing arts space nearly three times its original size. Fortunately, the symphony is home for longer than just the holidays.

“It’s taken such a commitment to get this done, now we have a date, and everyone is working toward it,” says project architect Joe Monteadora of the San Francisco firm Del Campo & Maru Architects. “It’s an incredible accomplishment to get it done,” he says, then adds with a proud sigh, “It’s pretty cool.”

The new theater boasts a host of upgrades that bring it into the 21st century and is an exemplary example of what a performing arts center can be – – a radical departure from the original 1957 structure that had declined in recent years.

The lack of air-conditioning made performances impossible during the valley’s often stifling summer months — coincidentally the area’s heaviest tourist season. Provisions for disabled patrons were virtually nonexistent, and, because of a lack of women’s restrooms, a men’s room was hastily converted into one for women by a sign change and the addition of flowerpots in the urinals.

The old theater also required seismic retrofitting, the removal of some hazardous building materials and other procedures to bring the building up to code. Moreover, the theater’s acoustical problems made it woefully inadequate for its main tenant, the Napa Valley Symphony.

“There was a swamp cooler that would hum and rattle during performances; it waslike a percussion instrument,” Grant Showley, president of the board of the Napa Valley Symphony, says with a laugh. “It was drafty in the winter and hot in the summer.”

The renovation of Lincoln Theater was a joint public and private venture, the result of efforts between the Department of Veterans Affairs of the State of California, the State of California Department of General Services and the Friends of Lincoln Theater, who over 10 years, raised the nearly $20 million needed to complete the project. More than 90 percent of the budget came from private funding.

“The whole reason they wanted to change and renovate the theater was for the symphony. They really wanted a home that was appropriate for a symphony orchestra. It’s our permanent home, here out. It’s great,” Showley says, beaming. “People come to Napa Valley for wine and food, but how much can you do with wine and food? You need something else in life, and it’s nice to see the arts kind of come up to the same bar as the wine and food.”

Raising the roof

One of the mandates facing the design team charged with recreating the theater was the increase of its capacity from just over a 1,000 seats to 1,200. The added seats required the introduction of a balcony, which in turn necessitated that the roof be raised several feet — no small undertaking.

“Renovation is definitely an understatement,” says Monteadora. “It really required the whole of the old theater to come down. There’s 13,000 feet of the old building — really just a footprint.”

Throughout the redesign of the theater, Monteadora was mindful to preserve aspects of its original incarnation.

“We really wanted to keep the bones of the old building because of the heritage here at the home,” he says of the theater, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2006.

“What I love about it, there are places where you can actually touch the old walls, but otherwise the theater space itself is completely enclosed to help the acoustics. But it’s an almost completely new building. The rest is 30, 000 square feet that’s been added on to it,” says Monteadora, who took many of his design cues from the existing architecture of the theater and its surroundings.

“The thing about the original building is that it was built in the 1950s with design references to the mid-century modernist movement, so everything you see here fits into that context — though the original design was a little more severe and office-like.”

As Monteadora and his team designed the building, he was happy to receive input from all parties concerned, including Friends of Lincoln Theater member Dick Martin, who is an architect. Together, they engaged in what Monteadora describes as a “design conversation.”

“He would interpret for them then bring it back to us in the design team, and we would flesh it out, and he would bring it back,” says Monteadora. “Having an architect on the client side was really helpful to have. At this point, it’s just a real collaborative effort.”

Among the new features are upgraded facilities for the disabled, “quiet rooms” for those with babies or with special needs such as respirators that would otherwise be disruptive to performances. Also new are a more spacious lobby, concession areas, a catering kitchen, a much larger stage, rehearsal rooms, a mechanical lift for the orchestra pit, an expanded box office, a new scene shop and of course, air-conditioning. Spacious green rooms, patios, VIP dressing rooms (as well as overflow dressing rooms with showers that could accommodate an army of performers) abound in the handsomely appointed backstage area.

There is also now a sprung dance floor (in which the supports rest on springs) and copious office space for administrative purposes. A roundabout has been added to help shuttle guests to and from the theater. When not in use, the area converts into a European-style plaza where residents of the home will be able to enjoy the water fountain in its center. Large murals from the 1915 Pan-Pacific Expo owned by the City of San Francisco and on permanent loan to the theater will be displayed on its new sizable walls.

A key component of the renovation was the inclusion of state-of-the-art acoustical and lighting equipment.

“Before, it had been more like a high school auditorium, it wasn’t really designed for a symphony,” says Monteadora, who points to the space’s “serrated walls,” which serve to bounce the sound back to every seat as one of the many enhancements.

“Visually, you can sort of see that. The ceiling also has an articulation, which uses the new volume of the space as well as ways to reflect sound.”

Many acoustical elements are camouflaged through clever design, including mesh shrouds and special fabrics that become “reflective or absorptive” of the sound as necessary.

“Before, they had a low ceiling, which was flat with flat walls flaring out so all that sound just went out. You had a different experience depending on where you sat,” Showley says.

Now, every seat is comparable to the other in what has become a world- class venue thanks to the efforts of hundreds of people and years of careful planning. Most importantly, the Napa Valley Symphony finally has a home.

Tom Illgen, the symphony’s executive director, is grateful to the other venues that have hosted the symphony in the intervening years (the Napa Valley Expo and the Napa Valley Opera House are among them), but is pleased to finally return to the upgraded Lincoln Theater.

“We’ve been in a virtual holding pattern for the past four years, in both artistic and audience development arenas. We hope that the opening of the Lincoln Theater will begin a new era for the symphony in artistic growth and fiscal well-being.”

The symphony’s conductor, Asher Raboy, concurs: “The Lincoln Theater feels like a big-city concert hall. You expect that great things will take place on that stage. Every event will be ennobled by a patina of class and sophistication that comes from the theater itself,” says Raboy.

Monteadora, likewise, is happy with the results of the project as well as his experience in bringing it to fruition.

“The Friends wanted to create a performing-arts venue, a permanent center that could do all these different things. The program sort of evolved as far as the laundry list of what they wanted to do to create an interesting and appealing space,” he says. “I worked very closely with the Friends. They’ve been an inspiration. They’re people who have some money and are donating a percentage back to the community in this form. That’s so admirable and such an inspiration.”

Michael Savage, executive director of Lincoln Theater, is enthusiastic.

“This is going to be a wonderful space to operate in from the performance point of view as well as for the audience who will have a great experience here. This is a magnificent addition to the valley.” He adds with a confident smile, “My job now is to fill the seats.”

The Lincoln Theater’s Grand Opening Celebration is Jan. 8. Concert- series subscriptions to the Napa Valley Symphony are now on sale. For information and availability, call (707) 226-8742 or visit http://www.napavalleysymphony.org