Old building finds new life as Cygnet Theatre finds new home at upcoming Liberty Station performing arts center
The planned $38.9 million Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center will turn the long-vacant Building 178 into a performance venue with two theaters.
After years of planning, the “ugly duckling” of Point Loma’s former Naval Training Center — Building 178, the former base’s exchange and recreation building — is on the verge of becoming a beautiful swan and the crown jewel of Liberty Station.
Once construction is complete, the building will be the new home of Cygnet Theatre.
“The space will be repurposed into a performing arts center with two theaters — a main theater and a studio theater,” said Lisa Johnson, president and chief executive of the NTC Foundation, the nonprofit that oversees development of the Arts District at Liberty Station, the commercial and cultural destination that took over the closed Naval Training Center in 2000.
The structure will be named the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center. Irwin Jacobs, the founding chairman of Qualcomm, and his wife, Joan, have donated millions of dollars to many area causes, including the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, UC San Diego and the San Diego Symphony.
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“Joan and I are thrilled to help provide this new performing arts venue in San Diego — especially one that is both a well-conceived conversion of a historic Navy building and located adjacent to the Gary and Jerri-Ann Jacobs High Tech High School,” Irwin Jacobs said in a statement.
“There has been a long-standing need for a live performance space for the many artistic groups and students in Liberty Station, and we’re especially excited that this will provide Cygnet Theatre with a permanent home well-attuned to their needs. We are pleased to join with many other donors in supporting the completion of this exciting project,” Jacobs added.
Other donors include the Conrad Prebys Foundation and Laub Family Trust.
The project is scheduled to break ground in the spring and the center is expected to open in late 2024.
The larger of the two performance spaces will have 289 seats. The smaller one will seat 125 to 150 people, depending on the layout.
The 289-seat theater “is a bit larger than the space we’re currently in,” said Cygnet Artistic Director Sean Murray, who co-founded the company with Bill Schmidt in 2003. “We wanted it to be large enough to do larger-scale shows but not lose the aspects of the Old Town Theatre [Cygnet’s current home], which our guests love, including the intimacy of the stage and the ability of the audience to really feel connected to the actors.”
The second, smaller venue will be “very flexible and there will be a wide range of productions that will be ideal for the smaller space,” Murray said.
At the basement level, everything needed to support the theater company will be available.
“Our rehearsal space will be in the building, as well as orchestra spaces, an industrial laundry room, storage for makeup and costumes and props, offices, green rooms, dressing rooms and more. It will be bustling behind the scenes,” Murray said.
Building 178 was built in 1941 as a recreational hub for recruits. Described as a sort of “mini-mall” for the sailors, the building included a bowling alley in the basement, a disco on the top floor and shops as varied as a tailor to a department store in between.
The structure, at the corner of Roosevelt and Truxton roads across from The Lot cinema, closed with the rest of the base in 1997 and has been vacant since. It serves as a sort of main entrance to the Arts District, and its emptiness is hard to miss amid the remodels nearby.
“At the NTC Foundation, we knew we wanted a venue dedicated to live theater performance. Building 178 is one of our few remaining buildings and the one suitable for something like this,” Johnson said. “This beautiful theater ... will be an asset and a resource for the entire San Diego region.”
Transforming the former Naval Training Center into the bustling Liberty Station commercial and cultural center hasn’t been easy.
The idea for a theater has been in the works since at least 2017. Groups from across San Diego have shown a definite need for such a venue, Johnson said.
“Many of the smaller local theater groups and dance companies either don’t have permanent homes or share space with larger groups, but are then at their mercy when it comes to scheduling and holding events,” she said.
Cygnet Theatre — the third-largest theater company in San Diego — was searching for a new home. The theater, originally in a 165-seat location near San Diego State University, moved to the 246-seat Old Town Theatre in
Old Town San Diego State Historic Park in 2008.
“We currently hold the lease to the Old Town Theatre, but it’s a state-owned building, and long term we needed a permanent home,” Murray said.
Cygnet’s year-round live productions include local premieres, classics and musicals that reach more than 40,000 people annually. It will continue at the Old Town location until the new facility is complete.
Cygnet and the NTC Foundation met in 2017 but quickly realized that putting a theater in Liberty Station was “a project larger than either of us could do individually,” Murray said.
But working together, they’ve found a way to make their vision a reality.
“Cygnet approached us looking for a home; we were looking for a theater operator,” Johnson said. “As nonprofits, we put our own individual needs aside for this project and are 100 percent partners in the fundraiser aspect.
“Once construction is finished, Cygnet will take over theater operations, with the NTC Foundation maintaining a landlord role.”
The project, originally estimated to cost $35 million, was jump-started in 2019 with a $9 million grant to the NTC Foundation from the California Arts Council. The money was used to cover the design and engineering drawings
from ObrArchitecture and Fisher Dachs Associates, as well as initial construction work.
The current cost estimate is $38.9 million because of inflation and supply issues. Johnson said the two nonprofits have raised more than $30 million so far.
Fundraising is continuing, with donations of $1 million or more being sought. Community campaigns are being encouraged so even more people can participate.
“This beautiful theater ... will be an asset and a resource for the entire San Diego region.”
— Lisa Johnson, NTC Foundation
San Diego-based ObrArchitecture has worked on many of the buildings in the Liberty Station complex and knows the quirky aspects of the historic structures.
New York-based Fisher Dachs Associates is known worldwide for its theater planning and design and for working on historic buildings. The firm completed the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre at The Old Globe theater’s Conrad Prebys Theatre Center.
Threshold Acoustics will work to ensure that guests in the performing arts center won’t hear the usual aviation noise that accompanies Point Loma’s proximity to San Diego International Airport.
Boretto + Merrill Consulting, which provided project management services for the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla and renovation of Hotel Del Coronado, also will do so for the new theater.
Cannons Constructors, which completed the San Diego Zoo’s Wegeforth Bowl, will be general contractor.
Murray said watching the architectural teams do their jobs has been “amazing.”
“The amount of incredible detail and discussions about every microscopic part of the building [has] been a big surprise to see how much work really goes into it,” he said. “But the teams are so fun to work with and so organized.”
One of Cygnet’s goals for the new space is to feel like it has always been there, Murray said. So many of the design choices were meant to ensure “people feel welcome and comfortable from the very beginning.”
Some of the currently bricked-in colonnades of Building 178 will be opened up to match the rest of the campus buildings, he said. “We’ll be using them as outdoor lobbies so we can take advantage of the beautiful San Diego weather. One side will be a big patio with comfortable furniture and fire pits, reminiscent of the organization’s present Old Town location.”
But Murray believes the interior will be the biggest surprise for future guests. While the outside of the building will conform with the other historic structures at Liberty Station, the inside “will be contemporary and modern, with a black glass elevator and a grand staircase,” he said.
There will be two refreshment areas, indoor lobby areas and more. There also will be nods to the building’s past, such as the basement’s former bowling alley, and art installations.
But as Cygnet looks forward to moving to its new home, Murray said he’s well aware that other groups don’t have the same opportunity.
“We know there are amazing organizations here in San Diego who don’t have a permanent home, and we are looking forward to being able to serve as hosts for them as well,” he said.
For example, he said, Cygnet is in talks with dance companies that have been at Liberty Station since the beginning about building them into the venue’s annual events calendar if they wish to hold performances.
To learn more
• Arts District Liberty Station is at 2640 Historic Decatur Road, Point Loma. Visit artsdistrictlibertystation.com.
• To donate to support the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center, visit building178.org.
• For Cygnet Theatre’s current schedule, visit cygnettheatre.com.