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Body Discovery Spotlights History of Oakland's Landmark Convention Center Now Under Renovation

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) -- The discovery of a body inside a wall of the long-shuttered Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center Wednesday is bringing a new spotlight on the historic landmark, now undergoing a complete renovation.

The body was found by construction workers as they demolished an interior wall. Authorities said it been there so long it had become mummified, and the person's age or sex was not able to be immediately determined.

The convention center opened in 1914, and was closed in 2005. It's now in the middle of a top-to-bottom renovation that will turn the facility into a modern, multi-use arts space. It's number 27 on the list of Oakland Historic Landmarks, just ahead of City Hall. And after sitting dormant on the end of Lake Merritt for about 16 years, this building is about to be reborn.

"It's one of those opportunities that doesn't come by that often," says Everardo Mora, Project Manager with Orton Development. "You're dealing with 100 year old building materials and methods. You can learn a lot from the way these structures were built."

Hosting everything from the 1918 Flu Pandemic to the King of Rock 'n Roll, the Oakland Civic Auditorium was built to last. After years of sitting idle, being victimized by taggers, the 1,500 seat theater and the 5,000 seat arena space is on its way to a second act.

"This space is going to be for nonprofits, arts groups, and commercial space," Mora says of the arena. "Concerts are welcome, rehearsals are welcome."

For those doing the work, it is a once-in-a-career job; a large-scale modern retrofit, and preservation.

"There's not many of these getting repaired," Mora says.

"This was the last theater west of the Mississippi to use old school sandbags and rope material," says Project Coordinator Jabari Jourdan-Ali. "Some of it we're looking to reuse. Some of the pipe grids and the draperies are valuable and reusable equipment."

"This is the original air-conditioning," Mora says of the holes in the theater floor. "So we're basically picking up and using the means and methods that were here previously in the design."

From the original ventilation systems to the light fixtures, the antiquity that can be preserved will be, but some things will change. The lakefront side, for example, will be rebuilt to maximize views and better connect with the city. The goal is nothing short of a city landmark, just as it was in 1914.

"You can feel it," Mora says. "You can totally feel the energy and the potential for this space. So I'm looking forward to seeing the lights on, the first curtain call, and getting it done."

It's a massive project, but completion might not be that far away. Orton Development is hoping to have construction wrapped up in the first quarter of 2023.


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