Rendering courtesy of the San Diego Symphony
A renovation of the Jacobs Music Center and Copley Symphony Hall will retain historical aspects of the structure while significantly improving acoustics and sight lines.

Rendering courtesy of the San Diego Symphony A renovation of the Jacobs Music Center and Copley Symphony Hall will retain historical aspects of the structure while significantly improving acoustics and sight lines.

A $125 million renovation of the Jacobs Music Center and Copley Symphony Hall is aimed at transforming the historic former Fox movie theater into a true concert hall with a variety of structural changes to dramatically improve acoustics.


Martha Gilmer CEO San Diego Symphony


Jim Moore Vice president and Senior Project Manager HGA

Not only will audiences be able to better hear the musicians and other performers, but they’ll able to see them better, said Martha Gilmer, CEO of the San Diego Symphony.

“They’re going to notice improved sound quality. I think they’re going to notice a more intimate connection with the stage, more vibrant lighting that will show details,” Gilmer said. “They will have more comfortable seating.”

The musicians themselves will also have better acoustics and sight lines so they’ll get an improved sense of their own performances, said Jim Moore, vice president and senior project manager for HGA architects.

Preserving the Past

HGA is overseeing the renovation in collaboration with acoustician Akustics, based in Connecticut and theater planners Schuler Shook, based in Chicago.

Construction began in January with a goal of completing the work by the fourth quarter of 2023, “fingers crossed with supply chains and all of that,” Gilmer said.

Opened in 1929 as a movie theater, the Music Center and Symphony Hall have been home to the San Diego Symphony since 1985.

The original Fox movie theater building was torn down in 1984 and Symphony Towers was built around what became the Jacobs Music Center and Symphony Hall following a $6 million renovation.

Much of the old movie theater remained after the first renovation.

The new renovation will retain much of the classical look of the theater, but significantly change the interior layout, adding new sound and lighting systems.

“I really want to emphasize that the beautiful architecture of the hall is going to be maintained, it’s really irreplaceable,” Gilmer said. “It’s one of the best preserved Fox theaters in the country. HGA has a great fidelity to its history and preserving that.”

Moore said that the 1929 design of the space as a movie theater “made it very acoustically challenging for the orchestra.”

“This was really about making the building worthy of the art that was going on in the space,” Moore added. “From the beginning, the (symphony) leadership defined this project as one that was about acoustics and about making the hall a place that everybody would be excited to be in and that everybody would be safe to be in and that was more universally accessible to more diverse audiences.”

Better Acoustics

Changes will include the addition of a permanent orchestra enclosure, new orchestra riser, and a tunable acoustic canopy. The canopy is made of movable wood and fiberglass panels that can be adjusted, depending on the performance.

“This canopy helps direct all the sound the musicians are producing both to each other so they can communicate with each other and also affects the sound out into the room,” Moore said.

A raised permanent choral terrace will be added around the stage that will allow the symphony to perform a greater variety of works with chorus. The terrace can be used for additional audience seating when it’s not being used by a chorus.

Acoustical tuning chambers and a variable acoustic devices will be added around the hall.

“The hall has a lot more latitude in terms of the type of performances that can be played in the space with excellent acoustics,” Moore said.

A major change involves replacing the original heating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems dating to 1929 and moving them from beneath the hall to an enclosed area between the top of the hall and the bottom of the parking garage above it.

“All of the space that that equipment occupied on the lower level now becomes much needed program space,” Moore said.

The heating and air conditioning equipment will hang from the ceiling of the enclosed area so the noise it makes won’t be heard in the hall.

A new entrance will be added on 8th Avenue for performers and staff.

The back wall of the hall is a flat surface, which didn’t matter when the hall was a music theater but doesn’t make for good acoustics as a performance venue.
“What sound goes out is slapped back to the stage,” Gilmer said.

The wall will be moved forward 24 feet and the flat surface will be replaced with an articulated surface.

“It saturates the audience more and doesn’t come back to the stage,” Gilmer said.

Moving the wall has the side benefit of opening space between the lobby and the hall for a multipurpose room that can be used for small recitals and education programs, Moore said.

A Wow Project

The number of seats will be reduced from 2,200 to 1,700 and rearranged to improve sight lines and make it easier for people to move around the hall. The seats will wrap around the stage instead of being arranged in parallel to the stage as they were for a movie theater, Moore said.

The new seats will “a beautiful greenish blue and they’ll reflect the chandeliers, one of the original signature features of the original hall,” Gilmer said.

The hall has five chandeliers – a large one that hangs from the center of the hall and four smaller ones. All will be taken down and refurbished.

Special attention is being paid to improving access throughout the hall for people with disabilities.

The existing hall had 53 different elevations, Gilmer said, adding that “we’re trying to get that all smoothed out.

“It’s wow. It’s a big project, no question,” Gilmer said. 

San Diego Symphony Orchestra
Founded: 1910
CEO: Martha Gilmer
Headquarters: downtown
Business: orchestra
Annual revenue: $37.4 million
Contact: 619-235-0804

Notable: With 82 full-time musicians, the orchestra performs for more than 250,000 people each season.