Jewish Community Center

Nob Hill Gazette, February 2004

New Jewish Community Center opens

By Max Millard

For the past two and a half years, commuters passing the corner of California Street and Presidio Avenue have been casting surprised glances at a massive construction project that occupies three-quarters of a city block. The builders demolished a three-story building and some surrounding structures, then dug four stories underground before starting. On January 12, the $60 million complex officially opened to the public as the new home of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, better known as the JCC.

From the outside, the most striking feature of the center is perhaps its color, a pale gold that resembles straw. It's the color of Jerusalem stone, a dolomitic limestone quarried in Israel that almost every building in Jerusalem is made of. Original stone was used for the dramatically rounded corner of the center, and all 120,000 bricks on the exterior were custom-made to match the color, creating a spiritual and cultural connection to the Jewish homeland.

At 235,000 square feet, the new JCC is more than triple the size of the previous building and includes 181 parking spaces, compared to zero before. Despite its vast interior, it rises only three stories above street level and has a low-keyed look.

"We knew from the beginning that the new JCC would be much larger in scale than any of its neighbors," said Kevin Hart, the director of design, in a tour of the complex in early January. "And therein lies the challenge: we wanted to do a building that seemed as if it was a good neighbor, a good fit in with the neighborhood architecturally as well as programatically. One of the ways we did that was by defining the building as several distinct buildings linked together. There's a fitness center building, a theater building, a classroom building, a service building. By doing this, we take a building that is fairly large in scale make it look as if it is not."

At the center of the complex is a square-shaped, sky-lit atrium, 44 feet in height, with many viewing sites built into each side. "It's not really a part of the building, it's the absence of any of these buildings," said the soft-spoken Hart. "Any path, from any part of the building to any other part, almost always leads through the atrium. That means that it is community space. It's the lobby for the theater. It is a kind of indoor courtyard for the restaurant. It's the milling space in front of the dining hall. It's a place where you feel perfectly comfortable stopping and waiting."

"The atrium is like a town square," added Lenore Naxon, who heads the cultural affairs for the center. "We want people to bump into each other there."

The JCC is a community center, not a religious building, and it has no religious themes in its design. Half of the estimated 4000 to 5000 people expected to use the facility each day are non-Jewish. However, it is still steeped in Jewish culture and tradition. All signs are printed in English, Hebrew and braille. The atrium has a language wall displaying the seven universal Jewish values inclusiveness, spirit, learning, welcoming strangers, justice, repair of the world and friendship. A quote from Anne Frank announces: "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."

In memory of the old JCC building, which existed for 68 years and was torn down only after a stormy legal battle over its possible landmark status, the new JCC has preserved a few of the old design elements. In different parts of the building visitors will encounter familiar light fixtures, tiles, chandeliers, oak wall paneling, a fireplace with a stone mantelpiece, a video display of the JCC's history, and a carefully restored 70-year-old mural of a Jewish wedding by Bernard Zakheim that was previously located outdoors. Lifted by crane in its concrete wall, it remained intact, and now adorns an indoor stairwell, at last protected from the weather.

In order to make maximum use of the space, every room in the center has been designed for at least three different purposes, making it much more flexible and functional than the previous building.

The largest room, Kanbar Hall, is designed mainly as a theater, with more than 450 seats ascending from floor level to 15 feet, unlike the flat floor in the old building. But the seats are collapsible, and can be slid backward into a big closet with the aid of motors. Then suddenly the room is appropriate for banquets, speeches, cabarets or dances. The center has seven sprung-wood dance floors.

Fisher Family Hall, the second largest multi-purpose room, has a capacity of 220. It will be used for children's performances, lectures, banquets, meetings, films on large pull-down screens, and dancing, including Israeli, salsa and hip hop.

Among the other cultural highlights: Gallanter Hall, an intimate second-floor room that seats 90; the Taube Center for Jewish Life; the teen center; a music studio; a Judaica bookstore; the KS Gallery for rotating art exhibits; an art studio with a kiln and 10 electric potters' wheels; three preschools; and an after-school program. The center will have a 5000-square-foot restaurant, scheduled to open this spring, called Home of the JCC.

Some of the leading caterers in town advised the JCC how to plan the kitchens and food storage areas, because those same caterers will be hired for events. One result is three separate kitchens: kosher meat, kosher dairy and non-kosher.

"I'm amazed at the number of things that we managed to fit into the building," said Hart, who began planning the design more than five years ago for Gensler Architecture. He and his design partner, R.K. Stewart, have worked on the project intensively throughout the construction period.

All arts performances and exhibitions fall under the Eugene & Elinor Friend Center for the Arts, a division of the JCC headed by Lenore Naxon. She pointed out that there are so many events and activities happening that people don't need to plan their evenings in advance.

"Say it's Tuesday night," she reflected. "You ask your husband: 'What's going on at the center? Let's just go and find out.' So you go, and you can work out, or take a yoga class or a ceramics class, or go to a poetry reading or learn to speak Yiddish, or just hang out and have a cup of coffee. You say, 'Let's meet at 8 o'clock for dessert.'"

Although most of the programs are continuations of what was already offered in the old JCC building, the sheer magnitude of the new building is expected to attract people in much greater numbers. Instead of one swimming pool in darkish surroundings, the JCC now has two pools and a 15-person hot tub in a stunningly spacious setting with white arched ceilings and natural light spilling in. There are massage rooms, saunas, and five separate locker rooms to accommodate men, women, girls, boys and families.

The 45,000-square-foot fitness center, operated by Club One, has approximately 85 different classes each week. Everyone who joins the fitness center also gets a membership in the JCC. "Each draws customers to the other," explained Naxon. "That's what the JCC is about coming for one thing and finding another. If you join the fitness center you're here three or four days a week. You'll find other things to interest and entertain you."

The JCC's sports recreation program serves 1200 to 1500 youths. The gymnasium has two full-sized basketball courts with retractable bleachers for 300 and another half-size court on the roof. The teen center, open to any teenager for $18 a year, has its own street entrance, a bar for soda and coffee, six computer stations, a multimedia center, pool table and giant-screen TV. Free membership has been given to residents of Menora Park, a low-cost housing development next door to the center that houses the preschool program.

Nate Levine, the executive director since 1997, knew when he was hired that his top priority was to raise funds for the new facility and get it built. "The institution almost went out of business and closed," he said, sitting in his neatly furnished office at the new building. "The JCC wasn't sustainable for the last 12 years. ... The Oakland JCC closed, the Brotherhood Way JCC closed. Even when I first worked here 25 years ago there was a discussion about the need for a new JCC."

A youthful 50, with rimless glasses and an intense look, he wore a yellow workman's shirt strung with a name tag and a chain of keys. The building was still surrounded by scaffolding, security was tight, and the interior seemed far from finished as workers hurried to install furnishings and paint walls.

In June 1998 the JCC received a pre-gift of $500,000 to get things started. Then in March 1999, said Levine, "four donors had the vision and the courage to take the first step and to challenge others to step up to the plate with large gifts Richard and Rhoda Goldman, Bernard Osher, Gerson and Barbara Bakar, and Claude and Louise Rosenberg." So far, at least 29 individuals have donated $1 million or more. The major donors will be honored at a February 28 gala at the JCC.

Lisa Goldman, chair of the event, said that she became involved with the fund-raising campaign "because I grew up going to the JCC with my parents, and my own children have attended pre-school there, gone to JCC camps in grade school, and used Club 18 as teens, so it has always been an integral part of my life."

Levine stressed that the JCC welcomes all San Franciscans, regardless of income, ethnicity or age, and that thousands of people made donations to the project.

"Some of the people from our senior program would come every week and bring envelopes filled with dimes and quarters," he recalled. "Sometimes the greatest sacrifices come from the people who make the most modest donations. ... It's heartwarming for all of us who work here. We're stewards. We don't own this place."

Pondering his feelings about opening the new center, Levine said quietly: "I think we've seen it through almost to the beginning. I'm not excited about finishing, I'm excited about starting. We didn't do this to build a building. The building isn't an end unto itself. We did this to serve the community with programs. So now I think we're just ready to begin."

The JCCSF is located at 3200 California Street, San Francisco. Tel.: 495-292-1200. Web site: