From the Archives: 4 Months & 90 Years

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by Paul Ganson

This season marks the 90th Anniversary of the opening of Orchestra Hall.  Ninety years might seem like a long time ago–a great distance into the past; but the closer we look, the more vivid and inspiring that time becomes.

 The Board of Directors of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra were convinced that Ossip Gabrilowitsch, the world renowned conductor and pianist, was the perfect choice for music director.  So, at the conclusion of his wildly successful 1918/1919 season as principal guest conductor, they offered him the position.  His response was clear.  His condition for accepting was simple:  “There is at present no suitable home for music in Detroit.  Build me a concert hall or I will not return.”  The Board was willing to consider that possibility but Gabrilowitsch made it clear that he was on a faster track.  So, under the leadership of William H. Murphy and Horace Elgin Dodge, among others, the Directors pledged their fortunes and their reputations to build a concert hall in time for the opening of the next season.

 C. Howard Crane, a leading theatre architect, was chosen.  Famous for designing the Fox Theatre and countless others, Orchestra Hall would be his only concert hall.  The grand and ornate Westminster Presbyterian stood on the site purchased by the directors; and Clara Clemens, the daughter of Mark Twain and husband of Gabrilowitsch, described the fury and the frenzy with which workmen began the demolition of the church’s front doors and Woodward Avenue façade—while there was still a wedding going on at the altar.  The building began on June and crews worked around the clock, illuminated by floodlights at night.  Walbridge/Aldinger were the construction managers and Horace Elgin Dodge appeared every couple of days to solve a problem, offer advice or do whatever was necessary to keep the project on schedule. 

 As if the time was already not short enough, in mid-July the plans were changed to add the horseshoe of twenty-six boxes and to extend the balcony to more than twice its length.  The architect responsible for all the exterior detail drawings was young and just out of architecture school at the time but upon reflection after a fifty-year career disclosed that it was the fastest project he had ever worked on:  “We just managed to finish the plans on the day the building was finished.”

 Miraculously, Orchestra Hall opened on October 23, 1919, just four months and twenty-three days after construction had begun.  As patrons were entering from Woodward and Parsons, workmen were leaving by the rear doors.  The final decoration of the Hall was accomplished in the ensuing months while the Orchestra was on tour or vacation.  Archival photographs from May 1920 not only captured the beauty and unity of what is arguably Crane’s greatest artistic achievement, but they also provided the basis for its restoration some seventy years later.  In recognition of the quality and fidelity of that restoration, the American Institute of Architects awarded Orchestra Hall its first-ever Interior Architecture Award.

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3 Responses to “From the Archives: 4 Months & 90 Years”

  1. Thank you, Mr. Ganson,for an interesting and well-writen story of Orchestra Hall. Anita Walters

  2. During my 26 years of usering at Orchestra Hall, I often told that story to many a patron. I am proud to have done just a little part in heeping Orchestra Hall alive and well.

  3. avatar Stephanie Greer on December 29th, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    When we moved to Detroit in 1967 Orchestra Hall was in danger of being torn down for a fast food place (or something similar). A small group said, essentially, “over our dead bodies”. This group grew,support was forthcoming, & we attended our first concert there with plaster on the floor, torn seats, & a lone cellist on a dusty stage. The sound was clear, pure, & every note from the cello could be heard in the farthest corner of the hall. My deepest thanks to all who contributed to the “Save Orchestra Hall” effort. You gave Detroit back a jewel.

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