San Francisco Chronicle
Biotech investor’s aid to Conservatory
Why Bill Bowes came through with $46.4 million: ‘Music makes me happy’
Five years ago, San Francisco Conservatory of Music President David Stull walked into a breakfast meeting at the Pacific-Union Club to ask board member Bill Bowes for $10 million or $15 million to buy land for a student dorm.
He walked back out on his way to a commitment of $46.4 million from Bowes, which is being touted as the largest gift to a music school for a new facility in American history.
That will definitely buy naming rights, and at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Stull announced the Ute and William K. Bowes Jr. Center for Performing Arts. It honors Bowes, a biotech investor who died in late 2016, and his widow, Ute.
Plans have been approved for the 12-story building at Hayes Street and Van Ness Avenue, directly across from Davies Symphony Hall. Construction will begin in July, when two low-rise buildings on the site will be demolished. The Bowes Center is expected to open in the fall of 2020.
“This is a residence building in the main,” said Stull. “It gives us 420 student beds.”
The expansion also gives the conservatory a central location in the performing arts and cultural district along Van Ness, and Stull plans to take advantage of that location. The dorm will offer free public concerts in a jewel-box recital hall on the
ground floor, with windows on the corner of Van Ness and Hayes, and a penthouse recital hall overlooking the City Hall dome. There will be a recording studio, a restaurant, a rooftop observation deck and apartments for visiting faculty.
The glassy design by Mark Cavagnero Associates — designers of SFJazz — will replace a squat three-story office building and a small apartment building next to it. The site is just two blocks north of the Conservatory’s main campus at 50 Oak St. That building, opened in 2006, will remain in operation.
The dorm is the first Conservatory-owned housing for students in its 101-year history.
“We will finally have a home in San Francisco,” said DeMarkus Davis, a senior from Atlanta majoring in violin.
It is expected to cost $185 million, and will be 165,000 square feet, just slightly smaller than the main building.
The Bowes Center will house the just-opened department of roots, jazz and American music, and space for the technology and applied composition department, which translates to writing scores for the movies.
That’s a long way from three pianos in Lillian Hodghead’s home on Sacramento Street, which is how the Conservatory began, in 1917. Ada Clement Piano School opened with five instructors for four pupils, but soon expanded into strings under the expansive name the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Among the students were violin prodigies like Isaac Stern, age 5, and Yehudi Menuhin, 12.
In 1956, the Conservatory moved to a sprawling Mission-style complex on Ortega Street at 19th Avenue in the Sunset District, and 50 years later it moved downtown. Thirteen hundred applicants are winnowed into 200 slots a year, representing 33 countries. In all, there are 414 students on campus pursuing bachelor’s and postgraduate diplomas in music.
Among thousands of graduates are Hai-Ye Ni, principal cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra; three of the four members of the Telegraph Quartet, which played Carnegie Hall in February; and soprano Elza van den Heever, who has had leading roles with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
A student production can include 25 vocalists and an orchestra of 35, and there are 500 productions or concerts a year, almost all free and open to the public.
“We are desperate for rehearsal space,’’ said Stull, 51. “We do large-scale opera productions, and they need the space for weeks at a time.”
A former tubist with the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra who had been dean of the conservatory at Oberlin College in Ohio since 2004, Stull was hired in 2013 and hit the ground looking for more land for the conservatory.
Outside his office window are several surface parking lots that had already been snapped up for development of high-rise housing on the Market Street corridor. It would not be long before students were squeezed out, and within five weeks on the job he found the location he wanted — 214 Van Ness, the former headquarters for Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
He figured on needing at least $10 million to make an offer when he had breakfast with Bowes, whom Stull describes as “one of the godfathers of venture capital.”
“Bill was legendary for saying next to nothing,” said Stull, who did not mind Bowes’ silence. It allowed him to do all the talking. When Bowes told Stull he was “in for $5 million,” the sales pitch started.
“I said, ‘Bill, we need to act, and if we don’t find real estate and buy it, it won’t matter what our aspirations are, because there won’t be land to acquire, no matter how much money we have. We need to get there, and we need to get there fast.’ ”
Bowes took it all in without changing his expression, and responded, “Yes, that’s correct.”
Stull has a voice made for radio and a dramatic delivery. By the time he finished his pitch, Bowes had gone from $5 million to $16 million as a start. By then the Lighthouse building was in play. Developers bid it up from $4.8 million to $8.1 million in five days.
Once that was locked up, Stull was able to buy the adjacent rental apartment building, on the promise that 27 displaced tenants would be offered housing in the new dorm. Total cost for the two parcels was $14.6 million.
The Bowes pledge of $46.4 million was calculated to be about half the total cost of the capital campaign.
A native San Franciscan and graduate of Lowell High School and Stanford University, Bowes was the founder of U.S. Ventures and was an early investor in biotech. He gave away more than $100 million to a variety of causes but was always low-key about it.
When asked why he funded the Conservatory, his answer was simply, “Music makes me happy.”
Bowes never allowed his name to be attached to a building. Asking for that took more nerve on Stull’s part than asking for the money. He made his request in person, at Bowes’ apartment.
“I said ‘Bill, we’d really like to name it for you,’ and he agreed to that.”
That was their last conversation. Bowes died of a heart attack, at age 90, on Dec. 28, 2016.
“Bill was a very quiet and modest person, but a total sweetheart,” said Nancy Bechtle, former president of the San Francisco Symphony. She also served on the board of the Conservatory, when it was located out on 19th Avenue.
“I think it’s exciting,” Bechtle said. “It’s like having Juilliard next to the New York Philharmonic.”