Historic Structures

Building Description Balboa Theatre, San Diego California

The Balboa Theatre is essentially, what would be called today, a 'multi-use' structure. Originally built as a legitimate and cinematic theatre space with a seating capacity of 1534, the auditorium and stage are encased on two streetsides one ground floor level of six storefronts on the Fourth Avenue side and four floors totaling 34 office spaces above. The project represented an investment of $800,000 and was heralded in the press as 'a gem of a theatre'.

Within a rectangular city block the building occupies three complete 50'xlOO' parcels along the Fourth Avenue side and a half block section along 'E' Street, that has since been vacated to an easement for pedestrian use. Along the Fourth Avenue elevation the building was designed as an office building with ground floor retail intended to be compatible with other street fronted commercial buildings at the time.

The Fourth Avenue elevation is modulated by a series of flat five story high pilasters which separate a series of paired double hung windows. At ground level the storefronts continue the vertical modulation and are further defined by arched clerestory windows above the storefronts. The office/hotel entrance bisects this elevation with four bays on each side. There was a marquee-like canopy at the office/hotel entrance that displayed, "Balboa Office Building". Originally the exterior fire escape stairs were at this location. Also as part of this entry, an elevator serviced the office/hotel floors and is articulated above the clay tile building roof by its own double pitched roof.

The 'E' Street facade changes in character significantly from that of the Fourth Avenue elevation. The opaque character and lack of openings clearly reflects the immensity of the theatre use inside. The north facade is for the most part an encasement wall providing the interior with a 'light & sound lock' and is measured in its use of exterior ornament.

The top story continues the paired double hung windows from the Fourth Avenue elevation, however, the fourth story has only one small ocular window per bay. The third story is entirely opaque and contains one ornamental niche per bay. The second level has one ornamentally detailed double hung window per bay as well. The ground level is entirely opaque and is for the most part only modulated by the vertical pilasters. It also contains two small non distinct service doors at either end. The horizontal band that defines and separates the ground level from the upper portions and the vertical modulation of the Fourth Avenue elevation is continued on the 'E' Street elevation as well.

As a prominent architectural statement the building is anchored by a domed octagonal seven floor height projection addressing the street intersection at a 45 angle. This detail not only offered more premium interior space by its angled protuberance but it was also a way of placing the marquee in a three-way position in more public view.

The ground level is the main theatre entrance and begins at the exterior entry foyer with the ornamental tile floor illustrating Balboa's Ship. The non-original marquee is flush against the facade covering glazed clerestory art glass windows that can be seen in historic photographs.

The fenestration at the third level consists of three ornamentally detailed large double hung windows with abbreviated balcony railings. The fourth level consists of one large tripartite window assembly flanked by two ocular windows one larger on the east side. The fifth level continues the tripartite in the front and is flanked by two pair of double hung windows.

Octagonal in plan, the dome and cupola reach nearly three stories in height and begins at the foundational cornice atop the five floors of the building. The first level of the dome complex, the drum, is eight cells consisting of large ocular openings which contain plaster lattice work framed by metal scroll work. This level visually supports a large cornice above and also acts as the base of the dome with finials and other ornament. The polychrome tile is punctured by smaller ocular openings and is crowned by a tall thin cupola.

The interior of the theatre reflects a 1920's theatre eclecticism that blends Mediterranean Classicism with Moorish and Spanish Revival styles. The design also reveals the performer/architect Wheeler's touches in ways that appreciative modern musicians and performers note were designed by someone who had to have been a performer himself; i.e.: the orchestra pit is larger than most legitimate theatres of this capacity and is able to accommodate 30 to 40 pieces with excellent access. There are 14 dressing rooms in the basement. Unamplified sound delivery is unusually efficient and excellent for both music and theatre.

The auditorium space is defined by its vertical pilasters which both visually and structurally connect with the reinforced concrete ceiling beams to create an integrated and cohesive spatial design. The coffered ceiling consists of alternating plaster and Moorish lattice panels which also contribute to the scale of the auditorium space.

The reinforced concrete proscenium arch is crowned by open plaster fret work that screens the organ loft above which then connects to the first primary beam of the ceiling. The sound delivery from these stylized screens throughout the ceiling has been referred to as a 'pre-surround' sound and is a significant feature in the Balboa's interior.

The proscenium arch is flanked by two very unusual 28' high vertical waterfalls that also serve as a rudimentary air-conditioning system connected to a large centrifugal blower (squirrel cage) in the basement. The fountains have three speeds allowing the water to cascade slowly like glycerin or more accelerated and louder. Another very distinct feature within the theatre's interior.

The side walls consist of equally spaced pilasters that are connected by an ornate cornice which in turn connects and emphasizes the rectilinear grid of the ceiling. The applied ornament of the interior pilasters and surfaces further enhance both the acoustics and the design integrity of the space.

The gently sloped ground floor provides three quarters of the theatre seating with excellent sight lines. The steeply raked balcony provides the remaining one quarter seating. The second level balcony lounge essentially functions as the primary lobby space. Over the years this space has been modified yet still retains its essential character.

In December 1930 the theater was renamed "El Teatro Balboa" and became an all spanish language cinematic venue, and also offered spanish language lessons. From 1942 to 1945 the US Navy appropriated The Balboa's office spaces under WWII mobilization utilizing all the Fourth Avenue office spaces to billet personnel. Between 1946 and 1958 a snack bar was added which took some space from the auditorium. Four of the ornamental etched glass windows that separated the auditorium from the lobby were removed, and the rest were plastered over. A Men's room was added in the Balcony Lounge and room number 201 from the hotel was converted into that Manager's Suite. All new theatre seating was added, and the Balboa Hotel continued. In 1959 the building was sold to Service Auto Parts with the intention of demolition, mable in the upstairs restrooms was removed as well as the fixtures in the downstairs restrooms. The original canopy marquee and the vertical Balboa sign were removed. In January of 1960 the theater was purchased by Russo Enterprises and operated as a "Action Movie" venue, and the balcony seating was removed to limit a Union requirement of projectionists per number of seats. The Hotel use continued through the mid 1960's until closed by the Fire Department for the previous owner's non-code alterations and potential fire risk. The City Council voted to put the Theater of the National Register of Historic Places in May 1977. In 1985 the City took over the Theater by Eminent Domain, Russo Enterprises, still the owner sued and settlement was reached in 1988.