History Take a virtual tour
The cornerstones of the War Memorial Opera House and Veterans Building were laid on November 11, 1931. These two buildings and the Memorial Court between them formed the original San Francisco War Memorial. In 1978, the Herbst Theatre was refurbished with a grant from the Herbst Foundation and assigned to the City's War Memorial department for management. Finally, in 1980, Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall opened, followed one year later by the Harold L. Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall. These two additions made the complex today’s San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center (SFWMPAC), which represents a major contribution to one of the grandest civic complexes in the United States.
A student of Bay Area modern architect Bernard Maybeck and L'Ecole des Beaux Arts fine arts school in Paris, architect Arthur Brown, Jr., designed both the San Francisco War Memorial and San Francisco City Hall, honoring Daniel Burnham's idea for a unified Civic Center. Media coverage of the grand opening included several articles in The New York Times and a cover story for TIME magazine, which noted, “the new Opera House to be dedicated this week, is easily the most attractive and practical building of its kind in the U.S. . . this year, when Chicago's and Philadelphia's opera houses are dark, the lights will go on in a house made possible by all the people of San Francisco.”
OPENING OF THE WAR MEMORIAL OPERA HOUSE
The War Memorial Opera House has been home to the San Francisco Opera since it opened on October 15, 1932. Despite the nation’s severe depression, Puccini's Tosca, conducted by Mr. Gaetano Merola, saw its original schedule of nine performances quickly sell out and three additional performances added, due to the incredible anticipation of opening season in the new house.
OPENING OF THE VETERANS BUILDING
The Veterans Building opened on November 11, 1932, one year after the cornerstones were laid. The Veterans Building was designed for and has been devoted to veterans organizations, arts organizations and the administrative offices of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center.
On the main floor of the Veterans Building, the lobby and foyer areas lead to the Herbst Theatre, a 892-seat hall originally designed as an auditorium and refurbished in 1978 with a $750,000 grant from the Herbst Foundation. The hall is adorned with stunning murals by Frank Brangwyn portraying the four elements — Air, Earth, Fire and Water — in their service to the welfare of mankind. The murals were brought from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.
The first floor also contains a Trophy Room housing military mementos, the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, and administrative offices for SFWMPAC and the American Legion War Memorial Commission. On the second floor, the front of the building is devoted to a large meeting and reception space known as The Green Room, opening to a loggia facing City Hall, while the rest of the floor is used as offices and meeting space for San Francisco Posts of the American Legion.
In April, May and June of 1945, with the world well into its sixth year of global war, the two original buildings of the San Francisco War Memorial served as the birthplace of the United Nations. Most of the plenary sessions of the Conference took place in the War Memorial Opera House, but it was on the stage of the Veterans Auditorium (now the Herbst Theatre) that President Truman and other heads of state and dignitaries signed the United Nations Charter on June 26, 1945.
LOUISE M. DAVIES SYMPHONY HALL
In January 1976, the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was engaged, and Pietro Belluschi retained as independent design consultant, to create additional performance space, one of which would be dedicated to the San Francisco Symphony. Mrs. Louise M. Davies’ $5 million contribution led to the naming of the hall in her honor.
However, funds were still needed for Davies Symphony Hall and by January 1978, Samuel B. Stewart and Sponsors had achieved $28.5 million toward a $33.8 million goal. On February 24, 1978, official ground-breaking ceremonies took place, led by the late Mayor George Moscone and Mrs. Davies. Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall opened on September 13, 1980.
Designing the hall for the optimal music experience required intense collaboration between the acoustical engineers, Bolt Beranek and Newman, and the architects. According to the engineers, it is vital for the audience to be in both visual and aural contact with the orchestra. As the design of Davies Hall progressed, weeks were spent adjusting the sight lines to provide a view of the stage at the level of the performers’ instruments from anywhere in the house.
A separate wing contains Harold L. Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall, where three large rooms provide ample rehearsal space for resident and touring companies. Zellerbach Hall was completed and dedicated on October 15, 1981.
QUICK REFERENCE DATES
Construction of the San Francisco War Memorial complex began: January 28, 1931
Cornerstones laid: November 11, 1931
Opera House opened: October 15, 1932
Veterans Building opened: November 11, 1932
Davies Hall opened: September 13, 1981