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A construction worker walks through the second floor of the Fox Theater. (Ray Chavez/The Oakland Tribune)

Phil Tagami has a wall of binders in his wood-paneled office in the historic Rotunda building in downtown Oakland.

The contents represent the blood, sweat and tears of his life for the past four years, since he signed on to save and restore as much as he could of the Oakland Fox Theater, a moldering, crumbling shell of its former self that no one, including the city that owned it, knew what to do with.

But now, as the exotic landmark's $83 million, inside-and-out restoration nears completion, Tagami knows he'd better find a new project to occupy his time and energy or suffer the depressing symptoms of withdrawal.

"As a grown man, this project has made me cry 20 times," Tagami said, and you know he isn't joking.

Workers are still scrambling to put the finishing touches on the classrooms, labs, music rooms and black box theater and cafe space for the Oakland School for the Arts, which is scheduled to move in over Thanksgiving weekend. The school will occupy the first, second and third floors in the structure's original wraparound wings and new addition sides of the building.

The ornate main theater space, complete with a scalloped ceiling curving over the stage and glowing-eyed genies on either side, has been transformed into a live concert hall similar in layout to the Warfield in San Francisco. Another Planet Entertainment, the concessionaire, will open the space for shows early next year, and a grand-opening celebration is scheduled for Feb. 5.

The transformation did not come without a price. The original estimates to fix the building rose from about $27 million in 2004 to $33 million in 2005 and $60 million in 2006, $32 million of which was funded by Redevelopment Agency loans. The funding also includes $6.5 million from the School for the Arts and a $19.1 million loan from Bank of America. Although ambitious and expensive, the project at the time did not include many of the original period details that ended up in the final product.

Patrick Lane, a redevelopment program manager for the city of Oakland, and president of the nonprofit ownership structure for the theater, said there were four options and pricing for rehabilitation of the Fox when Tagami got involved as a consultant in 2003, from a basic "Ruins" seismic retrofit to what he called the ultimate "Cadillac" version.

The project hasn't reached the Cadillac stage, Lane said, but still the costs of the project have gone up $22.6 million since 2006, mainly because of the unforeseen complexity of modernizing the lighting, electrical and plumbing systems and making structural improvements while maintaining historical integrity. There is also more money needed for tenant improvements to the theater and a new lobby restaurant and bar.

Tagami, a principal of California Capital Group and the Fox Theater's for-fee developer, and the city's project manager, Jeff Chew, have vigorously scouted new sources of funds, and each new source of funds brought more and more historic detail back to the Fox.

The project has been awarded millions in historical tax credits and grants, and the nonprofit Friends of the Oakland Fox, the group that helped keep the theater in the public eye and away from the wrecking ball, has raised nearly $500,000 in donations for the restoration.

The Redevelopment Agency has contributed nearly $50 million to the project, some of which is in the form of loans and some in grants. It gave an additional loan of $7.5 million this summer to fund the completion of the Fox and keep it on schedule.

Tagami's fee is 2 percent, and has not risen with the costs.

"You can't make money on a project like this," Tagami said. "No one wants to contribute or buy a brick if the money's going to me."

When all is said and done, the city will own the Fox Theater, and it is something to behold.

The ornate interior ceiling looks like it is made of dark wood, but it's actually dropped plaster painted to look like wood. About a third of the ceiling detail had crumbled away when the roof was leaking, so a team of plasterers, led by Steve Elliott of Oakland, created molds and restored the missing parts.

Jim Heilbronner of Architectural Dimensions is the lead architect and he has managed to adjust and come up with solutions as each new problem surfaces. Turner Construction has exceeded the city's expectations for local hiring.

Several of the starburst ornamental, glass ceiling lights were broken, so replicas were made by an Emeryville glass company. They look original, but are energy-saving fluorescent and have dimmers.

"The building is state-of-the-art modern but it's all hidden," Tagami said.

The theater is buttressed by new steel and concrete structures to withstand a massive earthquake. The trick was hiding it all so as not to detract from the historic walls, floors and ceiling. In many cases, walls were taken apart and new beams were put inside and covered over. There are 80-foot piers driven into the ground to fight lift and rotation.

The restoration is so smooth, it's nearly impossible to tell what is old and what is new.

The 3,800-seat Fox Theater was a marvel when it opened in 1928. Patrons fell in love with the mishmash of exotic flourishes and architectural styles, from the ornate domed exterior tower to the neon art deco clouds in the lobby. The interior's swirling floral patterns mingled with geometric motifs and Egyptian, West Indian, or maybe Grecian relief panels and columns, all in colors of dark red, gold and green.

The movie house closed in 1965, although various operators attempted and failed to make a go of it, the place closed for good in 1972. Erma DeLucchi bought the theater at auction in 1978, saving it from the wrecking ball. In an interview with the Tribune at a fundraising party at the theater two years ago, Erma DeLucchi said she and her husband had their first date at the Fox, and she just couldn't bear to see it torn down.

The Fox was listed as Oakland's 23rd landmark in March 1978. The building played host to various special events until 1984, after which it sat, deteriorating and leaking for many years before the city purchased it for $3 million in 1996 and began to make plans for a minimal restoration.

Pat Dedekian, president of Friends of the Oakland Fox, or FOOF, fell in love with the theater and in 1999 began a fundraising campaign to save it. She said she is amazed by how great it looks every time she goes by or steps inside.

"I think people who haven't seen it are really going to be amazed. It's something Oakland can be proud of," she said. "I never thought I'd see the day. ... Let's put it this way, when we first formed our group in 1999, there was no developer in sight, and the city hadn't done much to preserve it."

Dedekian said other people floated crazy ideas about how to fix up the Fox, and how it should be used. She thinks that's why Tagami got involved, to make sure it was done right.

"As a preservationist, I didn't have an appreciation of what it takes to do a restoration. These old buildings, we want to save them, but we have no idea the hoops people have to jump through and the risks they take. I'll never look at a real estate developer the same way again."

Read Cecily Burt's blog about West Oakland at www.ibabuzz.com/westside.