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Lisser Hall to begin remodel this summer

Historical photo shows students lounging at Lisser. (Courtesy of Karen Feine)
Historical photo shows students lounging at Lisser. (Courtesy of Karen Feine)

Starting this June, work will begin on a remodel of Lisser Hall. It is expected that the project will take about 13 months. In the meantime, the old location of the Mills bookstore will be used as a theater space.

Director of Construction, Compliance, and Sustainability Karen Fiene and Lisser Hall Specialist Jim Graham have been involved in the remodel project since planning started in 2013. It was Graham’s idea to use the bookstore as a temporary theater while Lisser Hall is under construction. Fiene and Graham have collaborated with the general contractors of the remodel, Ansari Structural Engineers and Oliver & Co, and also consulted 25 other people along the way, including Visiting Theater Professor and Director of Theater Studies Victor Talmadge, the art and music departments, the Mills College Art Museum (MCAM) and the Office of Institutional Advancement (OIA).

“We see [Lisser] as having an impact on student activity […] I think you’re going to see a lot more activity,” Fiene said. “It energizes the campus core.”

Talmadge believes the outcome of the remodel will be beneficial to the theater program.

“No doubt, the performance space will be great to perform in,” Talmadge said, adding that the addition of retractable chairs allows for more space.

The renovation is broken into three sections: seismic, accessibility and programmatic. The building will be brought up to seismic regulation standards, reinforcing the foundation and where the walls connect to the foundation. Lisser will also become more accessible, with the additions of an elevator and ramp, Fiene said.

Ansari helped map Lisser, since there were no blueprints to work off of, in order to evaluate how well Lisser could perform in a likely earthquake event.

“We spent many hours looking above the ceilings, behind wall finishes and below the floor to understand how the building was put together,” Ansar said in an email. “Based on our observations we made plans representing the existing structure, as well as we could. In general, retrofitting historic structures are my favorite type of projects. While they are very challenging, they are also very interesting, like solving a puzzle.”

Anything else falls under programmatic changes, such as remodeling the stage and replacing the current chairs with telescoping seats that improve sightlines and can be pushed back to reveal a ‘sprung’ floor, which is optimal for dance performances. Fiene said the plan also includes changing the lobby to accommodate possible art exhibitions and adding a terrace to the side of the building that faces Leona Creek. The Black Box Theater will become the Digital Performance Theater.

Lisser Hall was built in 1901 and was named after Louis Lisser, a professor of music at Mills from 1880 to 1910. When Mills added a theater department in 1920, a stage was added under Walter Ratcliff Jr.’s guidance, who was the master architect for the college for over a decade. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Lisser was renovated again, upgrading the audio and visual systems.

Jay Magtibay, chief estimator and senior project manager for the Lisser remodel likes working with historical buildings.

“They’re perennial visible time capsules of our cultures and technologies,” Magtibay said in an email. “It is neat to see the methods of construction that dates a century ago.”

Archives show Lisser before the entrance was moved. (Courtesy of Karen Feine)
Archives show Lisser before the entrance was moved. (Courtesy of Karen Feine)

When Lisser Hall was built, the entrance to the college opened along Seminary, and Lisser’s entrance faced that way as well. During the first major renovation in the 1920s, Mills’ entrance changed to open along MacArthur, so the building’s orientation was changed. Where the stage used to be became the lobby, and where the lobby was became the stage. The ionic columns of the original Greek style were removed to fit the Spanish Revival.

“It’s interesting how, when you wait, needs [of the college] change,” Fiene said. “If you had renovated it ten years ago, twenty years ago…”

“We would have had a television studio!” Graham interjected.

Now, Fiene and Graham hope the new remodel will provide a multi-purpose space, and be versatile enough to serve the college for decades to come. With the ability to push the seats back and open the space up, Fiene and Graham hope the space can be used for a broader variety of events, and will be opened up to local artists and companies that may like to rent the space for an event.

“In a way, that’s going back to what the building was originally intended when Mrs. Mills had it built,” Graham said. “It started out as a great big, flat floored, multi-purpose facility, and then it became a proscenium theater.”

Lisser’s cornerstone was also found during the mapping stages of this project. Fiene thinks there may be a capsule inside, but if not, then this generation of the Mills community will have a chance to leave their own.

The Groundbreaking ceremony will be on Thursday, May 11 at 5 p.m. in Lisser Hall.