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An aerial view of the newly-completed Center for the Arts campus in September 1994. Picture courtesy the Escondido History Center.

About the Center: History

Escondido’s cultural and artistic epicenter…

A jewel of North San Diego County

The creation of the Center was sparked by a civic vision—one that recognized how vital arts and arts education is in a community. In June 1985, the voters of Escondido approved the building of a $73-million arts center that would bring music, dance, theater, education and the visual arts together on one dynamic campus as part of an overall redevelopment project.

And while the building that followed took years of planning, foresight and community support, the background for the endeavor actually stretches back even further, as far as to the city’s incorporation in 1888.

Grape Day Park, now a historic site adjacent to the Center, was the setting for the region’s annual grape harvest festival and community social gathering at the turn of the century. These early days boasted local fiestas, in-home musicals, and even a German band playing its way down Grand Avenue on a flat-bed wagon on Saturday nights. In addition, Escondido had its own band which gave concerts on a platform on Grand Avenue in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1946, the Philharmonic Arts Association was formed and launched its first concert series held in the Escondido High School auditorium. Through the association’s efforts, Escondido was host to world-renowned artists such as Rise Stevens, Jose Greco, Artur Rubenstein and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

One of the earliest records of attempts to create an arts center to house all this activity is in a 1962 planning document known as the “Alexander Report.” In it, Escondido’s city fathers outlined plans for a civic center that would include a city hall, community services center and an arts center. With the growth explosion of the 1970s, a renewed sense of the community culture began to grow and with it the Escondido Regional Arts Council was formed to bring visual arts to North County. The first gallery was in the Vineyard Shopping Center on East Valley Parkway. Its successes led to a stronger, more comprehensive Felicita Foundation, which successfully lobbied to use the city’s old library space upon completion of a new library. With the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Felicita Foundation was able to use the newly acquired space—named the Mathes Center in honor of a family who gave untiringly to the community—to present both visual and performing arts in a limited scope.

Nevertheless, the dream of a true center for the arts—unlimited in scope—was still in the hearts of many. That dream began to come to fruition with the results of the 1985 municipal election.

The first phase of the cultural center was the construction of City Hall, which was completed in March 1988. During the next years, the National Endowment for the Arts and the City of Escondido sponsored a design competition to which 108 high-caliber architects from around the world submitted entries. Their designs were placed on display in Grape Day Park for community viewing and unofficial voting. From this competition, the firm of Moore Ruble Yudell of Santa Monica was selected to design the Center. It was the first arts center they had designed.

Ground-breaking ceremonies were held on June 22, 1991 in Grape Day Park, 83 years following the first Grape Day Festival. Throughout construction, the community was invited to participate. The Center Founders program hosted approximately 1,650 visitors wearing hard hats. Area students from 17 schools were invited to showcase their own artistic talents by submitting 4×8-foot plywood “fence art” to decorate the site. In addition, more than 10,000 hours of volunteer time were logged in the year preceding the opening. And buried somewhere within the walls of the Center is a bottle of scotch and a list of various contractors, placed there by Construction Manager Sam McCluskey.

A construction photo shows the steel framing of the Concert Hall at the Center for the Arts rising from the ground.

On October 1, 1994, almost a decade after that 1985 vote, the California Center for the Arts, Escondido opened on a green, 12-acre campus in downtown Escondido, adjacent to City Hall and Grape Day Park. Charles Moore, known as the “California Architect,” designed the facilities as a fresh interpretation of traditional Southern California architecture, inspired by the region’s Spanish Colonial heritage.

Since its launch, the Center has grown to live up to that original civic vision, becoming a multi-faceted nonprofit arts foundation attracting more than 300,000 people annually to its performances, festivals and arts education programs. It is the largest multidisciplinary cultural organization in the region and a true community resource, serving more than 800,000 people living throughout San Diego’s North County as well as visitors from outside the area.

The sprawling campus includes a 1,523-seat Concert Hall and a 404-seat Center Theater, and over the years these venues have played host to local and international musicians, symphonies, dance troupes, comedians, acclaimed theater and musical productions, and more. The Center boasts the most acoustically advanced Concert Hall in Southern California as well as the intimate Center Theater, which is ideal for smaller performances.

Art of all mediums and disciplines, created by professional and student artists, has been hung in the Center’s modern and spacious 9,000-square-foot Museum. In addition, the award-winning, 17,000-square-foot Conference Center is a top gathering place for businesses and organizations large and small, with a grand ballroom, versatile meeting spaces and banquet facilities. The Conference Center is also an excellent and elegant host for private dinners, lavish weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and other special events.

Since its founding, the Center has been dedicated to its mission to promote the arts and their power for community building and enhancement, and to enrich the lives of all within its reach, by providing artistic and cultural opportunities of the highest quality. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2014, the Center is looking ahead to a bright future with a better-than-ever roster of performances and events that will inspire, educate, entertain and engage the local community as well as the many visitors who flock to the region each year.

(Historical pictures provided by the Escondido History Center.)

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