SFOpera - What Lies Beneath the Seat Removal?

What Lies Beneath the Seat Removal?

As the highly anticipated completion of the War Memorial Seat Upgrade Project continues, we’ve uncovered a number of hidden treasures and peeled back the layers of the Opera House, its history, and inner workings. The project is in its final phase and will be finished in 2021. In October, seats throughout the Orchestra, Grand Tier, and Dress Circle sections were removed. What did we find? Quite a few surprising things you might not expect! 


The “mushrooms” of the Opera House air circulation system are curious creatures.

Perhaps when picking up a fallen item on the floor, you may have noticed these mysterious metal creatures under the seats in the Orchestra section and wondered what they are. Well, we did too. As it turns out, these suspicious bumps actually serve a purpose! Even further, they have a name. They are “mushrooms” (as they are referred to) and are part of the War Memorial Opera House’s air circulation system. They take cool air from the plenum space underneath the House and spread it throughout the auditorium.

View of the Orchestra section after the seats were removed in October 2020. The “mushrooms” (or air circulation pieces) can be seen where the old seats once stood. 


The mushrooms work in concert with the out-vents at the top of the House in the Balcony section. The system circulates air six times per hour, and still happily purrs away with its original 1932 motor—nearly 90 years old—working harder today more than ever with new, up-to-code coal filters delivering clean, fresh air.

Stacked “mushrooms” in the Opera House lobby, which will be re-installed once entering that phase of the project.


You might wonder what hidden treasures may have found their way to the bowels underneath the seats in nearly a century. Surprisingly, very little was found underneath during the seat removal—alas, no art deco-style earrings, dangle charms, or other small jewelry—but there are a few eyeglasses that were unearthed. To whom might they have once belonged? We’re not sure, but it could be anyone from longtime subscribers to out-of-town travelers, opera aficionados to complete newbies, or perhaps even one of your friends.

As part of the renovation, the carpet was also removed to reveal original wood floors. Notice the original color set against the dark patina that has occurred since the flooring was first installed. How many people have traversed the auditorium over 88 years?

The light and dark shades of the Opera House wood floor, as seen in the Orchestra section.

The varying light and dark shades show where the heaviest audience traffic has flowed between the rows and aisles. The floor will be repaired where needed, and the carpeting will be partially replaced as part of the final stage of the seat upgrade project. We can’t wait to see what it will look like when the project is completed in 2021.


We’re so excited that our new seats will arrive soon for our patrons to enjoy! The seats will have more leg room, a higher seat cushion, narrower arm rests so that seats feel wider, and feature sculpted dense foam to provide better support. See renderings of the new seats.

A rendering of what the new seats in the Orchestra section will look like.

While the new seats will speak to the needs of modern audiences, any change to this historic site is carefully considered, not only to preserve its aesthetic look, but also its acoustics. In fact, Threshold Acoustics advised on the best possible seats to ensure that reverberation times are not adversely affected.


We’ll keep you posted on this project as it progresses. In the meantime, we’re delighted to invite our audiences to enjoy opera safely at home and in-person. Subscribers and donors can stream a plethora of favorite operas from our archive on-demand. The public can stream titles from our archive every weekend. Other upcoming events include Drive-Ins at Fort Mason with Tosca on December 11 and 12 and Celebrating the Voices of San Francisco Opera on December 4 at 7:30pm.

Photos: Seat upgrade in War Memorial Opera House/Kristen Loken; seat rendering courtesy of San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Ballet.

Sheri Greenawald on Culture Shock, Generation Divides and Retiring in 2020
Where did you get that hat?