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. Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall opened in 1980, followed one year later by the Harold L. Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall. During the seismic upgrade and improvement to the Veterans Building, its fourth floor was transformed into the Wilsey Center, which opened in 2015. The San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center (the War Memorial), 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 vision 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.”
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.
The Veterans Building opened on November 11, 1932, as part of the War Memorial Complex. The Veterans Building was designed for and has been devoted to veterans organizations, arts organizations and the administrative offices of the War Memorial, the City and County of San Francisco department that manages the Performing Arts Center.
On the main floor of the Veterans Building, the lobby and foyer areas lead to the Herbst Theatre, an 892-seat hall originally designed as an auditorium and refurbished in 1978 with a 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 Veterans Gallery, which hosts rotating exhibitions with military and veterans themes, the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, and administrative offices for the War Memorial 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. Originally built to house the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the fourth floor has been reborn as the Wilsey Center for Opera.
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.
The San Francisco Symphony performed most of its concerts at the War Memorial Opera House from November 1932 until September 1980, when it moved into the newly-built Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. Mrs. Davies, a Bay Area philanthropist and patron of the arts, was the largest single donor to the construction of the Hall.
Davies Symphony Hall welcomed Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, on March 3, 1983. The royal couple watched a performance in their honor, which included performances by Tony Bennett and the San Francisco Boys Chorus.
The San Francisco Symphony’s Ruffatti organ was the largest concert hall organ in North America when it was installed in Davies in 1984. It was constructed in Padua, Italy, by Fratelli Ruffatti. The pipes—8,264 of them— vary in size from the largest, which is 36 feet tall and weighs 1,200 pounds, to the smallest, which is the size of a pencil and weighs six ounces.
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.
January 28, 1931
Construction for San Francisco War Memorial complex began
November 11, 1931
October 15, 1932
Opera House opened
November 11, 1932
Veterans Building opened
September 13, 1981
Davies Hall opened
September 16, 2015
Wilsey Center opened