Una Davis Jack McCrory

Former San Diego city manager Jack McGrory and his wife, Una Davis, led the fundraising campaign for the construction of the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.

As the first strains of classical music reached the ears of a sold-out opening night crowd at the San Diego Symphony’s new outdoor concert venue, Una Davis forced herself to look away from the stage. She wanted to take it all in. “It was so wonderful to turn around and see so many people happy,” she says. “Everyone was blown away, with big smiles on their faces.”

The new $85 million Rady Shell at Jacobs Park was funded almost entirely by private philanthropy. Davis and her husband, real estate investor and former San Diego city manager Jack McGrory, shepherded the fundraising campaign. Lead contributions included Davis’s $10 million gift that ensured the campaign got off to a successful start. In her honor, the 3,865-square-foot performance area is named the Una Davis Family Stage.

San Diego’s newest bayfront landmark bears the names of those top donors who made it financially possible. The Rady Shell was constructed with a $15 million gift from Ernest and Evelyn Rady. The embarcadero setting is known as Jacobs Park, in honor of Joan and Irwin Jacobs’ $11 million contribution. And the central gathering space is called Prebys Plaza, in honor of the late Conrad Prebys and The Conrad Prebys Foundation, which gave $15 million to the project.

“It was a real team effort,” says McGrory. The San Diego Symphony is the oldest orchestra in California, founded in 1910. Construction on the new site began in September 2019—and despite pandemic-related setbacks opened its inaugural season in August 2021.

The symphony previously used a temporary outdoor setup that had to be assembled and disassembled each season. The Shell is its first permanent outdoor venue, and it’s expected to host more than 100 live music events throughout the year.

The tubular structure is designed for optimal acoustics but also to complement the downtown skyline. The look is unmistakably nautical, evoking a sailboat or a seashell.

“There are no bad seats,” Davis says. “With the sound and lighting, it’s so big, you can be way in the back and have a wonderful time.”

The coral-red seating can be adjusted to hold between 2,000 and 10,000 people.

McGrory says this is an exciting time for the city. The Shell’s debut, reopening of the Mingei International Museum, and planned upgrades for other Balboa Park institutions are making San Diego even more of a world-class arts destination.

“The Shell is bigger than San Diego—it’s an international music venue,” he says. “It’s going to put San Diego on the map. It’s spectacular.”

With the Rady Shell now complete, the symphony can move on to one of its next projects: improving Copley Symphony Hall. With funds from its $125 million “The Future is Hear” campaign, the symphony is readying upgrades to the historic downtown theater.

Davis and McGrory say local philanthropists can make lasting impacts on arts organizations that will be enjoyed by generations to come.

“Don’t tell me something can’t be done,” McGrory says. “Find causes you’re passionate about.”

Davis adds simply: “Think big!”

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