Arts and technology could have a new home in Lisser Hall. A new plan is being developed for the renovation and improvement of the 113 year–old building. Once donors can be found to fund the $7 million project, the theater will become a more functional center for the dance department and a hub for showcasing vibrant art across disciplines in the community.
“The building doesn’t feel friendly right now,” Campus Architect Karen Feine said. “It is like a diamond in the rough. We want to bring it into the 21st century.”
The imperative for “Promoting a Vibrant and Inclusive Campus Life,” in the Mills College 2013-2018 strategic plan includes the renovation of Lisser Hall. The completed project would not be realized for a couple of years. An outside architect hired by the college helped shape the initial vision, conceptual drawings and planning for the space. Once the funds are raised, the school will begin to solicit proposals from different firms to carry that vision into a more modern and functional Lisser Hall.
Senior Director of Communications Dawn Cunningham cautions that the project is still only in the feasibility stages.
“We are still not sure that we can do this, that we can have success in the fundraising campaign,” Cunningham said. “We do not have those donors yet. I think people are very optimistic about it because everyone thinks it is a great project. But we can’t say publicly yet that this is going to happen.”
The dance department used to hold its performances in the gym at Haas Pavilion until the drama department was dissolved at Mills in the 90s. Then the dance performances moved into the theater at Lisser Hall.
Now, the building requires some improvements to adapt to the needs of the dancers and audiences alike. Presently, the building is mostly used by the dance department for the annual Dance Repertory Company Concert and student theses and alumni performances.
Jim Graham, director of Lisser Hall, feels that the renovation has been in order for a long time.
“It was kind of neglected for a while,” Graham said. “We woke up.”
Designed by Architect Willis Polk and built in 1901, Lisser Hall has undergone many changes in the last hundred years. Originally, it faced the street car line that ran from International Blvd. to Seminary Ave. In 1927 the entrance of the building was flipped to its current side facing the library, and a proscenium stage replaced the former entrance. In 1937 a classroom wing was added to the building. The last major renovation was done in the 1970s when a balcony was remade into the studio rehearsal theater above the lobby.
Dance Professor Sheldon Smith agrees with Feine and Graham that the building in its current state is not optimal for showcasing the talents of students and faculty.
“Students work so hard to create their work and then it goes on that stage,” Smith said. “The building as it is just has a way of crushing some of the spirit out of it.”
The proposed plans for the building, according to Feine, address structural as well as functional concerns. Seismic upgrades to the foundation and walls will be done as well as making the building more accessible to bring the building up to current building code and regulations. The new plans involve replacing the seats and adjusting the floor to improve sight lines for audiences. The upstairs studio theater will be outfitted for digital media to create opportunities for inter-departmental collaborations. Other upgrades include adding an outdoor terrace to the creek side of the building, opening up the lobby and all new lighting, paint, carpet and furniture.
Ann Murphy, the head of the dance department at Mills, is thrilled by the upcoming plans for the building.
“The concert hall will be a flexible space that can accommodate nontraditional as well as traditional performance,” Murphy said.
Although the college still cannot promise anything at this point, the vision of the project has generated a lot of hope for the future.
“While Lisser is and will be an art space first off, it will also be a center for interdisciplinary exchange,” Murphy said. “This has the promise of deepening the college’s commitment to experimentation and of encouraging us to question and push at our disciplines’ boundaries.”
During his time at Mills, Smith has been interested in incorporating more media and technology into the dance program, which the plans provide a lab for.
Feine believes that the transformation of this building will benefit the entire community.
“This project is going to be a great income and community generator, attracting talent from all over the Bay Area with a dynamic creative space that pulls everyone in,” said Feine. “We’re just really excited to have this building get its due and restore it to its rightful place.”