Mills College Lisser Hall
Oakland, CA | arts/entertainment | historic | community/education
Since 1901, Lisser Hall has been a key auditorium on Mills College’s idyllic campus.
By 2012, the building, at Mills’ geographic heart, was in need of renovation. Its fixed layout and outdated, pre-digital systems couldn’t meet surging demand for space rentals and cross-disciplinary collaborations. It presented programming difficulties and was largely inaccessible to people with disabilities. Lisser Hall needed to catch up to contemporary theater’s evolution toward nimble accommodation of boundless spatial needs.
Our ADA-accessible rehabilitation, achieved on a small budget, exemplifies value generation through efficient, flexible operations and utility-use reductions. Two years after opening, Lisser Hall’s scheduled use more than doubled, significantly boosting revenue. Given the centrality of artistic expression to Mills’ identity, the renovation is a creative triumph, augmenting the campus experience by co-locating four collaborative departments (Dance, Theater, Music, Digital Arts). Its flexibility represents multiple spaces in one: an adaptable flat floor (restoring original conditions) with sophisticated retractable seating for black-box performances and exhibits, a proscenium stage, and a digital performance studio. Theater-lighting systems are entirely LED, and restored historic elements conceal new mechanical and theatrical systems and seismic improvements. With minimal setup, Lisser Hall hosts film premieres, literature symposia, alumni events, lectures, and art exhibits. It attracts external arts organizations who partner with students in on-campus collaborations, spreading Mills’ impact region-wide and facilitating professional and academic opportunities. Even the structural design is cost-effective, using framed shear walls at less historically sensitive areas, plywood diaphragms, and new concrete footings encasing brick foundations.
Outside, the project lives up to its site’s prominence. Overlooking a nearby creek (long disassociated from the theater), a wood terrace holds event rentals and provides valuable outdoor space for student activities. An adjacent ramp, over native low-flow vegetation, makes the lobby accessible and allows the grand 1927 front entry to welcome all visitors.
Preservation Design Award, California Preservation Foundation, 2021