The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium (BGCA), formerly Exposition Auditorium or Civic Auditorium, is one of nine Beaux Art style buildings that comprise the San Francisco Civic Center, a national landmark historic district. Designed by architects John Galen Howard , Frederick H. Meyer and John Reid, Jr. for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 314,179 square-foot stone and steel auditorium stands four stories tall with a partial basement. While the City purchased the $701,437.08 site, the structure was financed by the exposition management for $1,000,000.00 and upon the event’s closing, was gifted to the host city of San Francisco.
After the closing of the Exposition, the world’s seventh largest pipe organ of the time was moved into the main arena. During the following decade, the monumentality of both the auditorium and the organ attracted many visitors to the Civic Center and established the venue as a cultural focal point in San Francisco. Before the completion of the War Memorial & Performing Arts Center, the auditorium was also home to the San Francisco symphony orchestra, which further strengthened its status as a music and performing arts venue.
In 1962 a $20 million bond issue was voted in by the citizens of San Francisco and a portion of these funds allowed for extensive rehabilitation, reconstruction and modernization of the Civic Auditorium in 1964.
The 1989 Loma-Prieta earthquake caused the back inner wall of the Civic Auditorium to crash down and the building was identified as a seismic risk. The pipe organ was removed after it sustained major damage from the earthquake and is currently in storage at Brooks Hall.
It was included as part of the voter approved 1990 Earthquake Safety Program Phase 2 (ESP2) and to allow for the occupancy by the San Francisco Opera during the seismic upgrade of the Opera House, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium became the first major project of the ESP2 program.
The auditorium remained functional as a mid-size performing arts venue and in 1991 it was officially renamed in honor of the celebrated Bay Area music promoter Bill Graham.
In 1993 a pre-design study of the steel framed building with un-reinforced masonry in-fill panels resulted in the selection of a fixed base concrete shear wall scheme to seismically upgrade the structure. Architectural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and hazardous materials abatement work was required throughout the building to allow for the structural work. Concurrent with the seismic upgrade, upgrades to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) were funded by the Convention Facilities Department.
Twenty months of construction and $25.8 million dollars later, the Civic Auditorium reopened in March 1996 as a seismically safe landmark with wheelchair access to all seating categories, upgraded restroom facilities, new interior paint and lighting, including restored bronze lamps and a new lighting grid in the arena. The smaller Polk and Larkin halls have been handsomely remodeled with more regard for the original style.
In 2005 a City funded study concluded that BGCA would be most successful as a mid-size concert venue. RFP released by city of SF that winter. As of summer 2010, the facility operates under the direction of BGCA Management, LLC.
Founded in 2011, Friends of the BGCA is an advocacy group that strives to preserve, revitalize and promote the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium as a historic landmark, cultural asset and Bay Area entertainment destination.