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NTC Foundation and Cygnet Theatre teaming up to open $39 million performing arts center at Liberty Station

Lisa Johnson and Sean Murray tour the space that will become the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center.
NTC Foundation president and CEO Lisa Johnson and Cygnet Theatre artistic director Sean Murray tour the space that will become the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center at Liberty Station.
(Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center will host Cygnet and Liberty Station dance company events in the long-shuttered Naval Building 178 at Truxtun and Roosevelt roads

Over the past two decades, Liberty Station has gradually become one of San Diego’s cultural jewels with a thriving arts district, restaurants, a public market, shopping, parks, recreation, hotels and more. But one piece of the puzzle — a performance venue for resident arts groups — was always missing, until now.

Today, the NTC Foundation and Cygnet Theatre have announced plans for the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center, a $38.9 million project that will be constructed inside the long-shuttered Navy Building 178 at Truxtun and Roosevelt roads.

An artist's rendering of the main theater for the future Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center at Liberty Station.
(Courtesy of NTC Foundation)

The 32,000-square-foot arts center will be Cygnet’s future home, and it will become a permanent performance space for the dance and other performing arts companies that call Liberty Station home, including Malashock Dance, San Diego Ballet and San Diego Dance Theater. The new building is slated to open in fall 2024.

During a tour of the 1942-era building last week, NTC Foundation president and CEO Lisa Johnson and Cygnet Theatre artistic director Sean Murray spoke excitedly about the project, which the two organizations have been secretly working on for nearly four years.

So far, the project’s fundraising foundation has raised $30 million of the needed funds and all of the building’s design plans were completed during the pandemic via Zoom sessions with the architects. As a result, Johnson said she expects to pull building permits for the project within a few months, and it will break ground in the spring, with plans for a 15-month construction build-out.

Sean Murray, right, and Lisa Johnson tour the building that will become the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center.
Cygnet Theatre artistic director Sean Murray, right, and NTC Foundation president and CEO Lisa Johnson tour the building that will soon become the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center at Liberty Station.
(Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When asked why NTC chose Cygnet Theatre as a partner on the project, Johnson said Cygnet — which is San Diego’s third-largest theater company — not only makes good theater, but the company’s executive director, Bill Schmidt, is also a good businessman.

“They are a very professional, very successful theater operation. I feel super comfortable with Bill from a business standpoint,” Johnson said. “People love Cygnet. Their donors feel like they’re part of the Cygnet family.”

Murray said finalizing the deal for Cygnet’s permanent home is a major milestone for the company he and Schmidt co-founded in 2003 in San Diego’s Rolando district. Since 2008, Cygnet has leased a 246-seat theater in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. But Murray said he and Schmidt didn’t want the company’s long-term future dependent on a lease that isn’t guaranteed.

An artist's rendering of the new studio theater at the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center at Liberty Station.
(Courtesy of NTC Foundation)

Cygnet will own the lease on the Liberty Station property once the renovation is complete. Under terms of the agreement with NTC, Cygnet will collaborate with the Liberty Station dance and other performance companies to accommodate their seasons for a combined total of 90 days each year. The building’s two performance spaces are also being designed to serve the needs of both theater and dance artists.

The project will be built with a $9 million catalyst grant from the state of California. The largest private donation came from prominent San Diego philanthropists Joan and Irwin Jacobs, whose gift amount is undisclosed. Their son, Gary Jacobs, and his wife, Jerri-Ann Jacobs, were major underwriters on the High Tech High School campus at Liberty Station.

“There has been a longstanding 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,” Irwin Jacobs said in a statement.

The exterior of what will become the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center at Liberty Station.
(Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The construction project for Building 178 will require a major overhaul that will gut its three stories and restore its historic exterior to match the other buildings at Liberty Station. Building 178 sits at the entrance to Liberty Station’s Arts District and “will be a true anchor tenant for our campus,” Johnson said.

Building 178 is one of 26 historic buildings that were constructed by the Navy in 1942 near Loma Portal. Originally known as the Naval Training Center, the base was decommissioned in 1997 and the nonprofit NTC Foundation was established as the major leaseholder of the buildings. Over the years, many of the buildings at the former base fell into a terrible state of disrepair. As new tenants have been found for the structures, they’ve been renovated one by one and restored to their original look with long arched colonnade walkways with the original brownish Miramar Tan-colored paint.

Building 178, also known as “The Exchange,” has had many uses over the years, including serving as a base department store, a movie theater, a recreation center with a basement bowling alley and home to various retail shops, including a coffeehouse and tailoring store. In the 1950s, the building’s exterior colonnades were enclosed to expand the interior space to 42,000 square feet. But the slapdash project left unsightly scars, including several walled-off stairwells and partially enclosed columns. The building has been boarded up since 1997, and due to age, neglect and a leaky roof, the interior was filled until recently with rotting walls and floors and piles of garbage.

Two architecture companies were hired to design the new project: Fisher Dachs Associates specializes in building theater spaces and obrArchitecture has done many of the building renovations at Liberty Station.

One of the first revamps the building will undergo is the restoration of the colonnades, along with the original footprint, exterior wall and roof designs.

Sean Murray and Lisa Johnson climb a staircase at Liberty Station.
Cygnet Theatre artistic director Sean Murray and NTC Foundation president and CEO Lisa Johnson tour of the space that will become the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center at Liberty Station.
(Meg McLaughlin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The new interior will include two theater spaces. A 289-seat traditional proscenium theater will be built on the west side of the building and will occupy all three floors of the building, from the stage level and lowest seat tiers at the basement level and the technical lighting grid and catwalk in the area of what is now the building’s second floor. A smaller, 150-seat flexible studio theater will be built in the center section of the building.

A portion of the basement floor will be used for bathrooms, lounges, a laundry room, storage and an art gallery. On the ground floor, the east end will include the entrance, box office, concession areas, a green room for performers and a loading dock, as well as a lobby funded by the Conrad Prebys Foundation.

An artist's rendering of the lobby in the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Performing Arts Center at Liberty Station.
(Courtesy of NTC Foundation)

Special sound-buffering areas will also be installed to block out one of Liberty Station’s best-known features, the overhead roar of planes approaching San Diego International Airport. Patio and seating areas are planned outside on three sides of the building. Once complete, the Jacobs Performing Arts Center will include a large LED sign at the building’s southwest entrance to promote arts events on the Liberty Station campus. There will also be vertical bladelike signs for Cygnet Theatre.

Murray said the new building is roughly four times the size of the Cygnet’s current space. In order to run the building and provide services to the dance companies that will use the building, Cygnet’s staff and budget will need to be “scaled up.” But he said that even though Cygnet will be in a larger space, he and Schmidt are committed to keeping the company intimately connected to the community and its audience.

“We don’t want to become a big play factory,” Murray said. “We want to stay the same company we are now.”


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