Passersby might have noticed the massive 26,000-square-foot building whose skeleton has emerged over the last several weeks along Embarcadero Road on Palo Alto High School's campus.
By next summer, this skeleton will house the school's new performing-arts center, which will contain a 583-seat theater with two levels of seating, a 68-foot-high stage, a drama classroom and a mechanical orchestra pit that can be raised or lowered to accommodate different kinds of performances.
The state-of-the-art center, which now carries a $29 million price tag, was approved by the Palo Alto school board in early 2012. Construction started in May 2014 and is proceeding as scheduled, said Tom Hodges, director of program management for the 2008 Strong Schools Bond, which is funding the project. The building was designed by Emeryville-based architecture firm Gunkel Architecture.
Michael Najar, a visual and performing arts teacher at Paly who served on the planning committee for the project, said the new theater is a long-needed and drastic upgrade from where his and other arts classes are currently housed: the 100-year-old Haymarket Theater.
He said the current space -- which has poor acoustics and even rats running about -- "has never been a useful performing-arts center." He no longer holds performances there.
Najar said he and others pushed for upgrades to Haymarket at least three or four times before the Strong Schools Bond passed. The building now coming to fruition on campus is a "tribute" to this history and the talented, dedicated arts students and faculty Paly has long had, he said.
The enormous building is tall enough in the rear to house the nearly 70-foot-tall stage area, but it is gabled at lower heights toward the front of the building so as to not block the view of Haymarket and the school's iconic Tower Building. It is also tucked back -- a change from an early plan that placed the building in front of Haymarket.
Inside the theater, there's a main section of seats, as well as side boxes for extra seating or use during performances. The orchestra pit can serve multiple purposes, with the capacity to raise it to stage level to extend the stage or cover it to provide 33 additional seats, Hodges said. Other seats are modular to adjust for more intimate performances -- an element that Najar said he and others pushed for in the design process, to be used in situations where a 600-seat theater might not be full. The theater will have a full fly system that allows stage crews to drop or lift curtains, lights, scenery, people or do other stage effects. It's also equipped with an electro-acoustic sound system that accommodates different kinds of performances, from choir to the jazz band, Najar said.
The building's exterior will be consistent with the rest of Paly's campus, with clay tiles on the roof and similar color schemes to the new Media Arts Center sitting just behind it.
Workers are in the midst of constructing framing, pouring concrete and putting up some structural elements. The project is on track to be totally enclosed by October, at which point work on the inside -- drywall, electrical and more -- will begin, Hodges said.
A campaign to raise money for furniture, music stands, recording equipment, lighting and other internal elements will kick off soon, Najar said.
"We know that eventually it's going to be a community building," he said. "Believe you me, the next year is important for the next 50 years."
The performing-arts center is one piece in a years-long overhaul of Paly's campus.
Major planning and construction expenditures at the high school have included $4.8 million in improvements to the track and football stadium; $2.6 million for a multi-use field for soccer, softball and baseball; $36.7 million combined for the two-story classroom building and the Media Arts Center; and $1.3 million in improvements to the Tower Building. Most of the new buildings and renovation of Paly's campus have been funded through the $378 million bond, which voters approved in 2008.
A new athletic center -- estimated in 2014 to cost $36 million to $40 million -- will largely be paid for by a private donor, save for the district's share of $12.8 million. Work on that is projected to start this summer and final costs are being determined, according to Bond Program Manager Robert Golton.
Designs for two other projects are currently underway: $5.5 million for new science classrooms and $10.4 million for renovation of the school library. Construction is set to begin on these two projects in the 2016-17 school year, Golton said.