OAKLAND

FORGET the sound-proof recording studio, the black box theater, and the large classroom windows overlooking the city's Uptown area.

When 16-year-old Kwame Grant saw the inside of his new school for the first time Tuesday, he was captivated by the hallways, the front door and the walls.

"That was my first reaction. I had to touch the door," he said.

For nearly five years, the Oakland School for the Arts made do in the parking lot of the city's ice rink, with a large tent and portable classrooms. In 2007, when a nearby housing development needed more space, the school at San Pablo and 18th Street actually shifted into the intersection.

But the exclusive, tuition-free charter school now has a permanent home — indoors.

On Tuesday, students returned from their winter break to the smell of new carpet and a spotless, three-story building that wraps around the historic Fox Theater.

The $83 million project to retrofit and restore the intricate old movie house included plans to build a school around it, above what used to be single-story retail space. The local firm Starkweather Bondy Architecture designed the building.

"It is unique. There's nothing like it in California," said state Attorney General Jerry Brown, who visited the school on its opening day.

Brown started the visual and performing arts school in 2002 while he was the mayor of Oakland, and later worked out a plan to incorporate the school into the costly restoration of the Fox, which will soon open as a live concert hall.

"It's been an enormous financial challenge, which so far we've met," Brown said. "This is part of the downtown legacy. This is it."

The Oakland School for the Arts has seen a number of directors come and go in recent years, but students and teachers say it's finally coming into its own. Its popular new principal, Donn Harris, was wooed from the San Francisco School of the Arts in late 2007.

Harris said he expected the total middle and high school enrollment to expand to at least 500 students next year.

On Tuesday afternoon, dancers tested out the shock-absorbent "sprung floor" of their dance studio with a modern ballet performance choreographed by instructors Maia Siani and Reginald Ray-Savage.

Afterward, still catching her breath, 17-year-old Knia Ward marveled at the difference between the new surface and the makeshift plywood dance floor on which she and her classmates learned the routines. "We came in and we did the dance, the same dance, but it felt so different," she said.

Still, Ward said the years spent dancing inside a flapping tent — usually over the sound of another music class, and sometimes in the company of pigeons — were important. "I think that's where we created our focus, because there was so much going on," she said.

Isabelle Duffy, 16, said that as much as she loved the luxurious new building, she found herself missing the old campus which, she said, gave the school some of its character. "We're not used to having so much," she said.

Grant agreed.

"It makes you appreciate everything much more," he said. "It's like going from a bucket to a Cadillac."

Reach Reporter Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424 or kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read her Oakland schools blog and post comments at www.ibabuzz.com/education.