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Construction on Lisser Hall soon to be finished

Lisser Hall has been renovated in 1908, 1970, and now 2018.
Lisser Hall has been renovated in 1908, 1970, and now 2018.

Lisser Hall has been under construction since last summer to bring the building up to date on seismic regulations and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards and ultimately provide a versatile space for students and community members to perform.

“It not only preserves a history for Mills, it’s a new venue for the performing arts that will catalyze creativity on campus and bring in outside collaborators,” director of construction, compliance and sustainability Karen Fiene said. Fiene is the project director and is overseeing and managing the moving parts involved in Lisser’s reconstruction.  

Construction was originally planned to be completed within 13 months — by July 31, 2018. Now, construction is scheduled to be substantially completed by Sept. 28, according to Fiene, and any last details will be completed within the next two months. On Sept. 28, a private gathering for board members and donors will allow them view the redesign.

Ansari Structural Engineers, ELS Architecture and Urban Design and Oliver & Company all collaborated on this project as the structural engineers, design, and contractors respectively.

“The challenge was meeting budget,” Fiene said. “And getting it done on time.”

Mehri Ansari, principal structural engineer concurred and said fulfilling the plans and keeping the look of the building while simultaneously seismically strengthening Lisser within the time and budget allotted was a challenge.

“When there’s an earthquake it’s important to make sure all the [building] sections work together,” Ansari said. “The building had pretty much no system to support earthquake loads.”

Lisser Hall was built in 1901 and subsequently renovated in 1928, and 1970. With each remodel, Lisser’s structure was altered in ways that led to unforeseen issues arising this time around. In the 1928 renovation, the entire theater was reversed so the audience, proscenium, and stage faced the opposite direction.

“There have been many remodels throughout the ages and we had no documentation or drawings about how that work was done,” Ansari said. “So we had to do a lot of guessing.”

The roof trusses and catwalk posed complications, adding time to the project, Fiene said. Much of the additional time needed for this project was related to ensuring Lisser Hall would meet seismic regulations.

“We normally do a lot of investigation,” Ansari said. “Because the building was in use before the construction started we had to guess.”

For older buildings that pose structural challenges, Fiene said, there are alternative ways to meet the seismic code requirements.

“There is a State Historic Building Code that will allow certain dispensations for working with existing conditions that cannot be modified without taking away from the historic character of the building. Mills is considered an Historic District with the City of Oakland’s Cultural Heritage Survey, and Lisser is considered a Significant Historic Structure. The architects are very experienced in working with historic buildings and strived to preserve as much of the ‘historic fabric’ as possible,” Fiene wrote in an email. “The building now meets ADA and seismic codes.”

In addition to fulfilling seismic regulations, the project focused on two other major aspects: accessibility and programmatic improvements. After construction concludes, Lisser will adhere to ADA standards with an elevator to the second floor theater, a lift to the basement from backstage crew, more accomodating restrooms, and a sturdy ramp that leads to the front entrance.

“You can’t expect a building this old to compare to a new building,” Ansari said. “But we have improved its performance substantially.”

Programmatic planning for Lisser Hall’s renovation included telescoping seats to improve onstage visibility, the terrace overlooking Leona Creek that doubles as a separate space for outdoor events, and a flat sprung floor which absorbs shock and is considered high quality within dance and other physical industries. The lobby was redesigned in order to showcase art and electronic media exhibits, potentially many student-created art pieces and installations.

The second floor theater, the Digital Performance Theater, is smaller than the first floor theater. With new and upgraded technology, Fiene says the space is easily adaptable and inviting for experimental usage, possibly allowing dancers to collaborate when one is not physically there by projecting or streaming their performance into the space.

Fiene and Alexander Zendian, performing arts facilities director, both emphasized the hope for Lisser to become a performance hub not just for Mills students but for the local community as well.

“We envision that these performance resources will not only provide a platform for performances by the Mills community but will also be a significant resource for community organizations in Oakland and the greater Bay Area,” Zendian said. “We are working to develop diverse performance programming on campus by way of Mills’ presentation of artists of local, national and international renown and the presentations of academic and student programs.”

Ann Murphy, associate drofessor of dance and the department head, appreciated the collaboration between the different departments and people involved in the project.

“For me the renovated Lisser Theater demonstrates how effective collaboration can be when the vision is nurtured even as obstacles, like money, exert pressure on the dream. It was a true collective undertaking —dance, theater and music faculty, administration, staff and board met together regularly for over a year and a half, addressing each aspect of the renovation with great thought and care,” Murphy said over email.

Fiene concurred with Murphy on thanking the donors and the many other people involved in the project.

“After the committee dissolved, Karen Fiene, resident architect, Linda Zitzner, associate vice president for operations, IT director Bruce McCreary and Jim Graham, holder of Lisser keys, real and metaphoric kept at it, troubleshooting and finessing the endless details,” Murphy wrote. “Without the generosity of the board of trustees and other donors, prompted by the back end work of Renee Jadushlever, the committee might still be sitting around a table, planning.”

In order to deliver on what was planned and appropriately address the structural issues that arose as construction continued, the timeline needed to be extended and the budget reworked, Fiene said.

Currently at $12.1 million, Lisser’s remodel budget took years to fundraise for, starting in 2013 and still continuing now. Fiene said that most of the money goes into what you can not see, like the seismic strengthening, foundational and structural improvements. The hope is that with this now structurally sound, accessible, and technologically outfitted building, students will have the ability to tailor the space to their production and creative needs.

Fiene hopes this versatility is the long lasting legacy for Lisser Hall.

“The most impactful experience for me was having a vision and seeing it come to life. And to know, to appreciate the value that it will bring to our students,” Fiene said. “Also to know we’re preserving a legacy. We have given new life to a building that has been here for 117 years.”

That history was excavated during construction. Like other traditional or historical buildings, Lisser Hall includes a cornerstone in the foundation. When the cornerstone was moved to retrofit the foundation for seismic requirements, a time capsule was revealed within the stone.

The first attempt to open the copper box uncovered the fact that water had somehow become trapped inside, unexpectedly pouring out. Eventually the box had to be cut open, revealing the waterlogged contents — a memoriam from Cyrus Mills’ funeral service, newspapers from around 1901, and small bundles of unknown material and purpose.

Although the papers were water damaged, Fiene found the ink stain patterns beautiful and organic. Reminiscent of topographical maps or riverbed silt of different colored sand, Fiene says pictures of the papers will be on display in Lisser’s new lobby and Housing Management and Dining Services (HMDS) staff member Phaedra Gauci has offered to make scarves with the pictures.

“It connects you to the past. It really felt like a Mills moment,” Fiene said of finding and exploring the time capsule contents. “We are giving this building a new life and maybe it will go another hundred years.”

Now, the new stainless steel time capsule contains an iPhone, flash drives with information about the project, theater, dance and Mills College Art Museum (MCAM) pamphlets, DVD of a student’s dance performance, and letters from President Hillman and the Chair of the Board of Trustees Katie Sanborn.

With Lisser Hall back open for business, Fiene hopes Lisser becomes a welcoming space for the campus and outside community as well. In addition, Zendian says there are no plans to shut down the theater known as ‘Little Lisser’ in Rothwell at this time. It served as the campus theater while Lisser was under construction. If any students are interested in reserving spaces in Lisser after it opens they can do so through 25 Live, according to Technical Director for the Center for Performing Arts and the Music Department Les Stuck.

“We talked about [in our last interview] the synergy between Rothwell, the library, and Lisser,” Fiene said, explaining that the library is like the campus brain, Rothwell the heart, and Lisser the creative energy. “You’re bringing in the heart, mind, and soul to campus.”