Telling the SAT Story: Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theater

Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theater
San Francisco, California
Year of Award: 2005
National Park Service SAT Grant: $197,535
Matching Share Leveraged: $307,188

Located in the heart of Bayview Hunter’s Point in Southern San Francisco, California, the Bayview Opera House is one of the Bay Area’s oldest theaters. Constructed in 1888, it served as one of the top performance venues in the early 20th century, and survived the famous earthquake and fire of 1906. It enjoyed a long period of prosperity, holding dances, fairs, rallies, minstrel and vaudeville acts, and dramatic theater for several decades.

But by the 1970s, the area has become economically depressed, and was ridden with crime, unemployment, and neglect. When the San Francisco Arts Commission took over the space in 1976, it designated the theater as a community and cultural arts center. Like many of the buildings in the neighborhood, years of neglect had taken a toll, and it had fallen into disrepair.  The exterior’s paint was chipped, and inside, crumbling asbestos and cheap, dated linoleum made the atmosphere unkempt and uninviting. Kevin Hussey, a hardwood preservation specialist, told the San Francisco Weekly in 2010 that the building “looked like a warehouse. It was very crude, and not well-maintained.”


When Barbara Ockel became the Executive Director of Bayview House in 2009, she used funds from a Save America’s Treasures (SAT) grant to address the repair and restoration of the building.  Through discussions with the National Park Service, who suggested that restoring the floors would transform the space, she set to unearth what lay beneath the linoleum. Previous directors said the original flooring had been replaced with plywood, but she went under the floors and found the original Douglas Fir hardwood flooring.

Because the SAT grant was about to expire, Ockel quickly devised a plan to restore the floors and proscenium, and brought in Hussey to oversee the craftsmanship of the project. He believed so fully in the restoration and the benefits it would bring to the community that he agreed to complete the project out of his company’s own pocket. As Hussey told SF Weekly, “This was obviously a community-based project, and it’s not always about money.” They also restored the antique-stenciled arch that frames the stage.

The restoration of the floors dramatically improved the aesthetics and acoustics, and has increased interest from potential performers. “Before the restoration, the dingy interior had a depressing look, and severely limited both artists who wanted to perform there and community members who wanted to use the facility,” said Ockel. Since 2009, attendance at community events has increased from about 10,000 to 35,000 in 2013.

Surveys and anecdotal evidence both indicate that the completion of the project has had a major impact on the Opera House, and Ockel told SF Weekly that she believes it will shape the revitalization of the surrounding area as well. “It absolutely will turn the tide, because so many people who have come in said they were amazed this space existed here. We have this great space, we have this great sound, how about putting on a production here?”

The community felt a renewed sense of pride after the historic site’s renovation. When the theater received a National Register designation (also funded by SAT) and a Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation, invested community members rallied together to raise additional funds to improve the surrounding landscaping area and improve ADA accessibility. Habitat for Humanity also donated their time to refresh the theater’s exterior with a fresh coat of paint.

Ockel attributes this renewed community pride to Save America’s Treasures. “It helped 100% in attracting more upgrade money to the facility, and many people in the community now enjoy art and culture in the building,” she said.

For more information on the Bayview Opera House, please visit

Established in 1999, the Save America’s Treasures program is managed by the National Park Service, with the National Endowment Agencies, to preserve and protect nationally significant properties and collections for future generations of Americans. Stories of saving those treasures will be shared through partnership with the American Architectural Foundation.

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia user SanFranMan59 and Bayview Opera House.



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Posted in: Center for Design & Cultural Heritage, Creative Placemaking, Preservation, Print, Save America's Treasures
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