Gym Retrofit in California Gives New Purpose to 100-Year-Old Theater

Inside the old Oaks Theatre
Touchstone Climbing has two new climbing gyms on the horizon, one of which is being constructed in a historic movie theater (pictured) dating back to 1925. (All images courtesy of Touchstone Climbing)

Touchstone – The Oaks
Berkeley, California

Specs: Touchstone Climbing, a California-based climbing gym chain and one of the largest in North America, is making headway on two new locations. The business first announced plans for The Oaks and Class 5 in 2019, but “the pandemic had a significant impact on the construction timeline of both gyms,” said Heather Bellgreen, Marketing Director at Touchstone. “We also had, and currently have, multiple projects going on, which always complicates things. In addition, The Oaks is a historic building, and trying to maintain the most iconic aspects of its history while making it safe, functional and beautiful as a climbing gym presented some challenges. But the biggest thing was COVID-19 and all of the disruption it brought in its wake.”

Trango Holds Pardners

Touchstone – The Oaks will be the chain’s 16th facility and is expected to open this month in Berkeley, California. According to Bellgreen, the East Bay area has high demand for climbing gyms. “We opened Berkeley Ironworks over two decades ago, in 2000, and even with our two gyms in Oakland, Great Western Power Company and Pacific Pipe, it is often still packed,” she explained. “Berkeley also has a big history within the climbing world—from being a landing and jumping off point for Yosemite, as documented by many people, including Jack Kerouac in The Dharma Bums, to having iconic bouldering spots itself. Plus, we were really excited to have found this specific location. Given all of these factors, it was a no-brainer.”

Outside the old Oaks Theatre
“The location is great. The building is beautiful. The history is rad,” summed up Bellgreen about the historic site (pictured left) that is being retrofitted for climbing.

The space the Touchstone team found is a former single-screen movie theater, Oaks Theatre, which was built in 1925 and closed in 2011. In respecting the building’s landmark status, the crew worked to “maintain a lot of the historical features” during the build out of the space, said Bellgreen, blending old school vibes with modern climbing walls. Once completed, The Oaks gym will be Touchstone’s first bouldering-focused facility in the East Bay. The 14,000-square-foot space will feature 7,000 square feet of bouldering surface on Walltopia walls reaching 16 feet, with weights and cardio equipment, fitness classes, saunas and other amenities.

A sneak peek of the bouldering walls at The Oaks gym
The Oaks, Touchstone’s 16th facility, will have over 160 bouldering problems in the repurposed space, once finished.

The team is also making progress on Class 5, a mixed-discipline facility located in Torrance, California. “We’re always looking to expand,” Bellgreen continued. “It’s more, for Touchstone, about finding the right building.” When finding a new location, Bellgreen said Touchstone considers several factors: accessibility, what’s near the gym, relative distance from their other gyms, ceiling height, building size, age and sturdiness of the original construction, how much demolition is required, and more. Like The Oaks, the Class 5 gym is being constructed in an existing building and preserves a bit of history. “Class 5 was the name of one of our oldest gyms, and one of the only gyms we’ve ever closed, in Marin County,” she said. “We’re thrilled to continue that gym’s legacy in LA.” Bellgreen also revealed Touchstone’s next gym project will be in Redwood City, California.

Trango Holds Pardners

Walls: Walltopia
Flooring: Flashed
CRM Software: RGP
Instagram: @TouchstoneClimbing

In Their Words: “Our communities are amazing. While we’ve done our best to foster this—encouraging inclusivity, supporting our Meetup Groups, throwing inclusive events like Woman Up—it’s a huge testament to our members. Our gyms are also state of the art, and our crew of setters are phenomenal, ensuring each gym has new, challenging and elegant problems and routes in constant rotation. The fact that joining one gym means you have access to all of our gyms is a big bonus as well…Once you join one of our gyms, you can climb all over California.” – Heather Bellgreen, Marketing Director at Touchstone Climbing

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