Thursday, November 1, 2012

Lake Merritt's Grand Dame



One of Oakland's most beautiful buildings has been closed for six years. A dozen bulldozers and earth-movers are parked at odd angles in front of the elegant Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium at the southern tip of Lake Merritt, but the work isn't happening in the 1914 Beaux-Arts landmark. While the lake itself gets a major landscaping and structural face-lift, the old Oakland Auditorium's remains shuttered.
Oaklanders: Remember when the Grateful Dead played their famous three-show New Year's Eve events at the Kaiser in the '80s? Before that the Oakland Symphony was based there. The theater is still named after the late, great conductor Calvin Simmons.
In the '50s and '60s Elvis Presley played there and there were hundreds of roller derby games in the sports arena. For almost 70 years the auditorium was home to the Oakland Children's Holiday Pageant, where kids played the parts of elves, pointsettias and fairies.
As recently as 2000, the building played host to Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama.
Of course the building needs millions of dollars worth of repairs. Its last renovation was in 1985, when it was officially named after Henry Kaiser. In 2006 the city voted down a $150 million measure to house library facilities in the auditorium.


The building has ping-ponged between the city's redevelopment agency, which the went the way of all California redevelopment agencies (closed to save the state money) and the city of Oakland.
During the building's brief time as a redevelopment project, there were two corporate proposals to lease and restore the building. Those proposals are before a state commission, which includes Mayor Jean Quan.
Personally, I'd like to see this jewel put to positive use. Let's continue to energize our downtown area by making the best of what is already, and preserving a big piece of Oakland's cultural history.

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