Nourse Theater Likely to be Renamed 'Sydney Goldstein Theater'

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The interior of the renovated Nourse Theatre. (Roslyn Banish)

San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) officials will vote Tuesday on a motion to change the name of the Nourse Theater in Hayes Valley to the Sydney Goldstein Theater.

The name change seeks to honor the founder of local public talks presenter City Arts and Lectures, who passed away last September at 73.

Sydney Goldstein breathed new life into the SFUSD-owned Nourse Theater, renovating it after the historic building sat neglected for decades, said City Arts co-director Holly Mulder-Wollan in a phone interview.

City Arts & Lectures longtime leader Sydney Goldstein (right) with one of her main collaborators on the Nourse Theater renovation project, Moti Kazemi.
City Arts & Lectures longtime leader Sydney Goldstein (right) pictured with one of her main collaborators on the Nourse Theatre renovation project, contractor Moti Kazemi. (Drew Altizer)

"Every detail, from the sound system, to the seats, to the sconces, to the curtains, was really a passion project that Sydney poured her life into," Mulder-Wollan said. "And we want to honor all the work that she did there."

The Nourse Theater was originally named the the Nourse Auditorium in remembrance of Joseph Nourse, a teacher, principal and superintendent who worked for the San Francisco school district for 42 years in the early part of the 20th century.

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Before Goldstein renovated the 1927 art deco building located on the corner of Hayes and Franklin Streets, it served many purposes.

Under Nourse, it originally housed the High School of Commerce.

When the institution closed in the 1950s, the school district started renting it out for events, including an Alcoholics Anonymous 30th anniversary party in 1965 and a poetry reading by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg on Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral day in 1968. In 1985, it was used as a courtroom for a State Civil Court asbestos case that went on for two years.

After that, the theater closed its doors to the public. The school district used it as a storage space.

Kary Schulman, director of city culture funder Grants for the Arts, recalled visiting the abandoned theater with Goldstein soon after after City Arts' founder learned that her longtime venue, the Herbst Theatre, was temporarily closing for seismic renovations.

"By great good luck, we found a kind custodian who was able to unlock the theatre, and turn on the lights revealing a scene of decay and abandonment that is difficult to describe," wrote Schulman in an email. "There was a false floor, put in for the asbestos trials in the mid-'80s, and there was the stored detritus of decades of SFUSD discards: File boxes, old desks, piled high with computers from the Jurassic age of computers, broken office furniture, piles of lumber and building supplies, all stacked in unstable towers like those we're used to seeing on the news after natural disasters.  And all covered with dust and pigeon droppings."

Schulman thought the space was unsalvageable. But Goldstein saw things differently. "Sydney could see at once that the space could be emptied, cleaned, painted, outfitted with new seats, an inviting green room, and a good sound system," Schulman wrote. "She saw it could be an asset not only for City Arts and Lectures but for the whole arts community."

City Arts started hosting events at the Nourse in April of 2013. The organization presents more than 50 shows at the theater each year.

Other Bay Area nonprofit organizations, including the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, the San Francisco Civic Symphony, Youth Speaks and the California Institute of Integral Studies, keep the 1,800-seat space buzzing for an additional 60 nights annually.

KQED is the broadcast partner for the City Arts & Lectures radio series.

SFUSD commissioner Emily M. Murase said the school board is likely to approve the motion with no objections. She said she expects the new name to be in place on the building by sometime in the spring.

"It was really precipitated by Sydney Goldstein's very untimely death in the fall," Murase said in a phone interview. "It's a very fitting tribute. She took what was basically a neglected property and really transformed it and activated it into a lively space for discussion and dialogue."

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