San Diego Symphony SYMPHONY HALL : Decorating Firm Returns to Give Symphony Hall a Dignified Note

Times San Diego County Arts Writer

In 1981, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra was practically bankrupt. But on Saturday, the symphony will celebrate the opening of its new, multimillion-dollar home and the kickoff of an exciting season. This week, the people and events that came together to save the symphony are being profiled in articles in Part II, View and Calendar.

Friday in Calendar: Music director and conductor David Atherton gives his views of the symphony.

If the workers from A.T. Heinsbergen & Co. have done their job well, the new Symphony Hall will look very much the way it did as the Fox Theatre, only better.

“It’s the nature of a lot of our work that when we get done, you really can’t tell what we’ve done,” said Doug Bouman, a craftsman and ornamental painter who has worked with Heinsbergen, an interior design firm that also does restoration work, for 13 years.


For seven months, an army of painters, plumbers, electricians, carpenters and carpet layers have swarmed through the interior of the Fox Theatre. They have crawled through the bowels and scaled to the top of the Spanish Baroque dome in their effort to restore this 56-year-old theater to its former grandeur.

The smallest contingent of laborers, who worked under the Nielsen Construction Co., the general contractor, was from Heinsbergen. But its work would provide the theater’s biggest visual impact.

Besides the symphony’s main move to acquire and provide a hall with the most gracious acoustical qualities possible, there was a need to clean and dignify this once-gaudy movie palace. Heinsbergen was picked to select and create the visual statement of Symphony Hall. The choice brought decades of experience in ornamental restoration to bear in the effort to renew the theater’s eclectic mixture of Spanish Baroque and French Renaissance architecture.

Working with modern materials and techniques dating to the time of Michelangelo, skilled painters painstakingly cleaned and restored the myriad detail work, while Nielsen carpenters installed a large control booth across the back of the theater that experts said will enhance the hall’s acoustics. While much of the cost of the $4.75-million restoration has gone for such prosaic but necessary things as a new air-conditioning system and reconfiguring and expanding restrooms, it’s the money that was spent on the look of the building that visitors will see.


“The first question was, ‘Should it be modernized, put back exactly as it was, or something in between?’ ” said company president Tony Heinsbergen. He developed prices for all three alternatives. “Fortunately, the symphony wanted to put the interior back the way it was.”

The Heinsbergen Company originally designed the interior of the Fox Theatre, which opened as a movie house in 1929. Working from the original sketches by Heinsbergen’s father, the restorers employed the techniques the firm has used for 60 years. The restoration began with the cleaning of the huge dome, where time had turned the gilding black and darkened the paint to unrecognizable hues.

Working atop scaffolding four stories high, craftsmen cleaned decades of grime from the dome.

Colors Those of Past


“The problem today . . . is that the colors are so clean-looking,” said Doug Bouman. “It’s a contemporary solution to a restoration problem. It should look refurbished but not bright and clean.” To avoid that look, years of experience were called on to create colors that matched those of the 1920s and ‘30s. Although the original color used in the elaborate scrollwork of the dome could not be determined, a blue that is almost blue-green was chosen. The gilding in the dome, as well as that throughout the theater, was renewed.

The Heinsbergen team worked closely with the architectural firm of Deems/Lewis & Partners in selecting colors, choosing rose and blue as the predominant hues. Generally, colors were toned down in keeping with the dignity of an orchestra hall. The walls of the auditorium were lightened slightly.

“We used a glaze on the walls to make them look a little more like stone,” Bouman said. The gilding was also covered with a glaze to “make it not as raw, and much richer.”

An ancient technique was applied to two huge murals of French court scenes that ornament the side walls of the auditorium. After touching them up, craftsmen applied a watered-down solution of buttermilk to the surface.


“It gives an overall, even tone to the whole thing,” Bouman said. “After five years, there’ll be a buildup of dirt and nicotine. You wash off the buttermilk, and the dirt comes with it.” Then the solution is applied again. Buttermilk is chosen over shellac or similar sealants because it does not crack, Bouman said.

Foyer Glamorized

For the next three years, the main entry to Symphony Hall will be on 7th Avenue, through the mezzanine foyer. “The green paint here has been replaced by beige,” said symphony project manager Cheryl Livingstone, as part of an effort to glamorize the foyer, done in French Renaissance style. Mirrors and glittering chandeliers have been added, and the gilded scrollwork has been renewed.

Livingstone said that 30% of the cost of the renovation has been spent on “things you won’t see, but you can tell if we don’t do them right.”


Much concern was put into acoustic enhancement. The new control booth for lighting and sound consoles was designed to provide a hard wall for sound to bounce back into the auditorium. It also allowed for another set of doors to the lobby, giving another layer of sound insulation.

Generally, soft fabrics, such as drapes and carpeting, were removed or reduced in quantity to improve the acoustics. And an orchestra shell will not be used. Instead, the back wall of the stage, assisted by movable sound reflectors, will be the chief element for directing sound into the audience. The orchestra will play in front of a bronze-beaded curtain that will hide the reflectors and the bare, black stage wall.

“It will be a much livelier room than when people were last here,” said Bob Wolff, vice president of Artec Consultants Inc., an acoustic consulting firm. Efforts have been made to insulate the hall from the noise of jets and the drone of the air-conditioning system. For special non-symphony concerts, the control booth will come into play, providing double the electrical power for theatrical lighting and a sound system that can serve jazz or other popular musicians.

Wolff, whose New York firm has worked on theaters, opera and symphony halls from California to Canada and Texas to Italy, said San Diegans will be impressed with the sound in Symphony Hall: “We have used every ounce of energy to get the sound to people’s ears.”