A Royal Royce of a Performance Space
Theatre Histories: Royce Gallery Theatre Bay Area published 2012-10-26
Photo: Liz Caruana Photography, lizcaruana.com
Exterior of 2901 Mariposa, which houses the Royce Gallery
Every month, we explore the histories (and mysteries) of the Bay Area’s theatre buildings. This
month, playwright Mercedes Segesvary tells us about The Royce Gallery, and what happened in 1967 when the
new owners of 2901 Mariposa found their “empty” warehouse full of squatters.
A Royal Royce of a Performance
by Mercedes Segesvary
In the shadows
of some of San Francisco’s great Mission District theatres, the three-story building at 2901 Mariposa Street contains
an intimate multi-use performance space that often goes unnoticed: Royce Gallery. What began as a two-story industrial warehouse
space used for storage has become a prime location for artistic and theatrical performance.
Built in 1937, this
building was originally used as an auxiliary storage space for the food cannery located in the warehouse just one block north,
at 2111 Harrison Street. Its architectural style is representative of the Mission District’s 20th Century Industrial
period (1900-1950): Steel-frames clad in unfinished concrete and punctured by a generous number of steel sash windows. The
floors have double reinforced rebar (a metal mesh required by law for this style of structure) because they needed to be strong
enough to withstand operating forklifts. In the mid-1940s a third story was added to the building.
1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Bay Area went into wartime preparedness. The longtime tenants who tell this building’s
wartime stories claim this space was used as ammunition storage. The dates of storage and the types of ammunition are undocumented,
but it seems that it began sometime in the in the early ‘40s and was mainly naval ship ammunition.
early ‘50s, this building went back to its original use as a cold storage facility; by the early ‘60s it was unoccupied.
In 1965, a small group of low-income artists searching for an affordable place to live discovered 2901 Mariposa—now
a vacant warehouse, and quickly moved in. Their residency was not exactly legal, however. When Ken and Hilda Royce bought
2901 Mariposa in 1967, they were surprised to discover that the building was full of squatters. But rather then evicting the
community of artists, the Royce family chose instead to help them. In 1972 the Royce family legally converted the building
into a residential hotel. Ken Royce provided the advice and assistance the artists needed to finance electrical wiring, plumbing
and lighting. They sledgehammered openings in the external walls to create new windows, as well as a new entrance on 540 Alabama
Street. Thus began the existence of the Developing Environments (D.E.) Artist’s Community.
Rosie Radiator, a D.E. tenant since 1972 (and
also the kind individual who led me on a tour of the building) conceived the Royce Gallery Performance Space. Radiator, with
the help of other D.E. artists, converted the unused northwest area of the building into a 40-seat performance house with
a dance studio, a rehearsal room and a pressure-sensitive sound stage. Originally intended as a space solely for the D.E.
community, the Royce has since been opened to the use of the public. Outside artists like director Susan Jackson, actor Julian
Sands and, recently, award-winning actor John Malkovich have contributed to performances on the Royce stage.
My tour ended on the Royce Gallery’s pressure-sensitive sound
stage. Rosie let me try it out, and encouraged me to dance to the beat of my own music. While I let my inner tap dancer out
I asked Rosie why the Royce was so special to her. She said, “You know, if it wasn’t for the support of Ken and
Hilda none of us would be here.” Before Rosie and I parted ways, she added, “This stage is a way to say, Thank
you to the Royce family and this wonderful building for giving our dreams a place to come true”.
Theatre Histories: Royce Gallery Theatre
Bay Area published 2012-10-26
|2901 Mariposa Street, circa 1970.
| A pianos-eye view of the Royce Gallery performance space. Photo: Liz Caruana
|Tap Dance Room at the ROYCE Photo: Liz Caruana
More photos of the ROYCE GALLERY