A huge public center built on the edge of downtown Oakland that once hosted the likes of Elvis Presley, the Grateful Dead, and Martin Luther King, the Henry J Kaiser Convention Center now stands moldering next to Lake Merritt, shut down since 2006.
Driving around Lakeshore Ave you might mistake the Kaiser Convention Center as part of the Oakland Museum, a block to the south, but the tents set up by the homeless in the alcoves of the huge building hint at its decrepit state. The center’s location, huge size and beaux arts architectural style allow it to stand out even among the unique skyline of Lake Merritt. A relief on the western side bears the words: “Auditorium of the City of Oakland dedicated by the citizens to the intellectual and industrial progress of the people.”
Designed by architect John J. Donovan, the Oakland Auditorium, as it was once known, opened in 1914. The structure hosts a 5,492-seat area, a ballroom, and a theater and was once a place of public gathering, art, and merriment. A long list of famous musicians, notably Elvis Presley, The Grateful Dead, and Iggy Pop along with public speakers that range from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton have performed at the Center. In 1918 the auditorium served as a makeshift hospital during the Spanish Flu epidemic. Even more incredible, Martin Luther King celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on Dec 28, 1962 in the arena.
Unable to make it a profitable concert venue the Oakland City Council closed the convention site in 2006 but with enough money to “mothball the center and maintain it after closure.” Since then many ideas have been suggested as to what to do with the forlorn building, but none have taken hold. Rumor has it the ancient boilers, after sitting unused for so long, are now inoperable and would need to be replaced, further increasing the costs needed to reopen the center which are estimated at a few million. On January 28th 2012, the Occupy Oakland Community tried to seize the building as their new base and brought down the wrath of Mayor Quan and the Oakland Police Department. Dressed in full riot gear and armed with tear gas and flash grenades, the police arrested up to 400 protestors in one of the most violent scenes in the Occupy Movement.
The Kaiser Convention Center is accessible off of Lakeshore Ave, although the many doors of the building are locked, each hosting a small “No Trespassing” sign. The city’s homeless have erected makeshift shelters in the grottos on the Eastern side of the building. On warmer days, some of the alcoves will be unoccupied and you can walk right up and admire the giant double doors and the ornamental architecture surrounding them. Oaklanders pass by the building with regret and general wonderment as to why it’s no longer open, although the older generation can still recall when the site was in operation.
Hope is on the horizon for the Kaiser Center. In July 2015, the Oakland City Council endorsed Emeryville-based Orton Development Inc.’s $52 million pitch to lead the way in reviving the landmark facility. However, eight months later, the center is still far from re-opening night. Even in a best-case scenario, that won’t happen until sometime in 2018.