Empress Theatre

Artisan Spotlight

John Howland, Architect

Arc Inc. Architects

For Vallejo architect John Howland, the biggest challenge in renovating the Empress was turning a single-venue theatre—redesigned in the 1930’s to serve solely as a movie theater — into a multi-purpose performing arts center, capable of accommodating live theater and concerts, dance, lectures, movies, and an 80-piece symphony orchestra.

With the existing stage just 10 feet deep and the need to preserve its proscenium for historical integrity, this was no small feat. It was just one of many challenges, however, including complying with ADA (American’s With Disabilities Act) access and safety requirements and finding ways to maximize limited space.

Along the way, the project produced several surprises—like the discovery of an underground river beneath the Empress, flowing over bedrock.

“We were told that the basement had ‘a little bit of seepage in the winter,’” Howland said. “But when power went out, water poured in."  The solution: run pumps around the clock—and store all electrical equipment above ground.

Howland has done a number of challenging renovations and finds it appealing to be “part of an organic structure that changes over time.” To get it right, he said, the architect has to “get inside the head of the designer and what they were thinking at the time. The goal in the end is to convince people that it’s all the work of the same person.”

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E: JHowland@ARCIncArchitects.com
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