|photo by Alice Lum|
Walter Damrosch hoped to change the industrialist’s attitude. The German-born composer/conductor was assistant conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and conductor of the Oratorio and Symphony Societies. New York City’s problem, as he saw it, was that there was no suitable venue for opera or orchestral music.
Neither the Academy of Music nor the Metropolitan Opera House could stage opera properly, as could the great houses of Europe. And the remaining recital halls—Steinway Hall and Chickering Hall—were built as showplaces for piano manufacturers. For several years Damrosch chipped away at Carnegie in an attempt to convince him to provide the city with a free-standing, state of the art concert hall.
The millionaire needed no convincing that a new hall was needed. He was quite familiar with all the musical venues. He simply did not want to pay for a new one. Damrosch wrote in his diaries that Carnegie felt that the importance of science and literature in life far outweighed that of music. “He always insisted that the greatest patronage of music should come from a paying public rather than from private endowment,” Damrosch wrote.
Finally Carnegie gave in—but only to a point. Damrosch remembered “He built Carnegie Hall, but he did not look upon this as philanthropy, and expected to have the hall support itself and give a fair return upon the capital invested.” In other words, it was a business deal.
Plans were begun in 1889. On March 15 The New York Times happily reported “New-York City will probably soon rejoice in the possession of a music hall. For several years musical enthusiasts have been trying hard to bring about the result which they now hope to accomplish.”
The article noted that the New-York Oratorio and Symphony Societies “and some other gentlemen interested in the advancement of music” had purchased “a plot of ground composing about nine city lots on the corner of Seventh-avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, upon which it is proposed to erect a magnificent building, suitable in every way for the purposes to which it is to be devoted.”
Interestingly, the newspaper barely mentioned Carnegie. “All the necessary funds for the erection of such a structure have been pledged, and the actual designing and building will be begun without delay,” it said. Only the last sentence named him. “Mr. Andrew Carnegie…is the moving spirit in this scheme.”
The Times article noted that the location was “perhaps rather far up town.” It was not only uptown, it was in a relatively undeveloped area filled with stables, weed-filled lots and coal yards just south of Dickel’s Riding Academy.
Carnegie assembled a stock company to operate the hall, loaned it the cash necessary (in return he received 90 percent of the stock), and agreed to give the architectural commission to the Oratorio Society’s board secretary, William Tuthill. At the time the 34-year old Tuthill was well known for his singing but not for his architectural skills.
By June of that same year the company had acquired additional real estate and The Times reported that a “much larger building that was originally contemplated” would be built.
|Tuthill's blocky chunk of music hall as it appeared in 1895 -- photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
By choosing a musician as architect, Carnegie and Damrosch had, wittingly or not, ensured that much of the focus would be on acoustics—a factor often lacking in earlier concert halls. Tuthill carefully studied famous European halls and his finished auditorium would be praised for its excellent acoustics.
Tuthill gets the credit for the design of the “Music Hall, founded by Andrew Carnegie,”, as it was first known; but he did not work entirely alone. On July 19, 1889 The Times reported that “William B. Tuthill, Richard M. Hunt, and Adler & Sullivan of Chicago, the architects of the Chicago Auditorium, have prepared the drawings for the building…In architectural style the building is to be Venetian Renaissance.”
The corner stone was laid in May 1890 and the hall was completed a year later. As it rose The Times reported that the main hall would seat 3,300 and be “of the best acoustic properties. The parquet alone will seat 1,200, and there will be two tiers of boxes and two balconies. There will be thirteen exits, and the vestibules, corridors, and staircases will be of the most commodious character.”
Andrew Carnegie wished to ensure that his $2 million outlay would pay a profit. “The great concert hall can be transferred into a magnificent ballroom, adjacent to which will be a grand banquet hall for the accommodation of 1,200 guests, fitted with a complete kitchen service…In the lateral building, as it will be called, fronting on Fifty-seventh-street, there will be a hall for chamber concerts, lectures, private theatricals, etc., having a seating capacity of 550.”
Carnegie Hall opened with a flourish on May 5, 1891—the first of a five-day festival of orchestral and choral concerts the highlight of which was the American debut of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky who conducted several of his own works. The same season Ignacy Jan Paderewski was introduced to American audiences here. It was the beginning of a tradition—Joseph Levinne, Mischa Elman and Ephram Zimbalist would all make their New York debuts here.
The ability of the concert hall to transform into an assembly space was exhibited later that year when the Kunstlerfest, or Artists’ Festival, was held here. The German-American event culminated in a great ball “as brilliant as wealth and beauty could make it,” said The Times.
“It was a veritable indoor Eden that the guests entered when they began to arrive about 9 o’clock,” the newspaper reported on December 4, 1891. “A false floor had been built over the entire auditorium, making it a great, smooth dancing surface. To the height of the first tier of boxes sweet-scented pines had been banked and filled the air with a most delightful odor. Around and under the pines settees were placed. On either side of the proscenium arch the musicians were placed, screened from the view of the guests by masses of green stuffs.”
The Philharmonic Orchestra took the stage the following year with Anton Seidl as conductor. But despite large crowds and rented space, the Music Call was not making money. The solution: enlarge the building.
On September 19, 1892 Morris Reno who “bore with him full authority from Andrew Carnegie to act as his judgment prompted in any matters concerning the enlargement or alteration of the Carnegie Music Hall," announced that changes were coming.
“Our plans include the raising of the building several stories to allow us to fit up a number of artists’ studios, for which there is a demand. Refitting the stage may also require some alterations of the boxes near the proscenium arch,” he told reporters.
|By 1897 the tower and additional studio wings had been completed -- NYPL Collection|
By 1897 two additions would provide for offices and income-producing studios, all continuing Tuthill’s original design—what the AIA Guide to New York City would a century later call “dour Renaissance Revival.”
|In 1906 the New-York Tribune advertised studios in the Hall -- copyright expired|
Carnegie Hall was not simply the venue of classical music. In March 1905 Bronco Charlie took the stage. The New-York Tribune noted “he has had an interesting career. He was formerly a star rider of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He won the horse and bicycle race at the Royal Agricultural Hall, London, against the world’s champion cyclist. King Edward was a spectator of his performance. Wherever he has gone, ‘Bronco Charlie’s’ feats of horsemanship have called forth wonder and applause.”
|E. Presson Miller coaches an aspiring songstress in his studio in 1916 -- photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
The hall was a favorite of lecturers. In November 1907 Dwight Elmendorf delivered his series of “entertaining and instructive lectures, the subject being ‘Old Mexico,’” reported the New-York Tribune. And in 1913 the “Kodak Exhibition” was held here, featuring “hundreds of pictorial enlargements” and illustrated lectures by Dr. William Torrence Stuchell with “fascinating motion pictures.”
But the profits Andrew Carnegie hoped for were never realized. Years later, in 1939, the Works Progress Administration’s “New York City Guide” noted that Carnegie built the hall “in the belief that a patron of the arts could profit financially. Continuing operating deficits dispelled his hope of profit. Despite crowded houses, the hall never paid its way and had to depend upon private subsidization in order to survive.”
Carnegie was further infuriated when, in 1907, Carnegie Hall was assessed by the city at over $1.54 million. Through his attorney, Robert L. Cutting, he said the assessment was over-estimated by $1.5 million. In plain terms Carnegie was saying that the structure which paid no return was, in fact, worthless. Cutting said “the steel man felt keenly the excessive valuation of the Carnegie Music Hall, as that was not a business proposition, and was of far more benefit to the city than to the corporation.”
When Andrew Carnegie died in 1919 the concert hall he never wanted to build had not provided him a dollar profit. In 1925 it was purchased by a syndicate that made extensive renovations. Among other alterations, the banquet hall became an art gallery for the tenants of the studios.
The following year Arturo Toscanini came to Carnegie Hall as guest conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra for the 1926 and 1927 seasons. He stayed on as permanent conductor until his farewell performance on April 29, 1936.
Throughout the decades the hall continued to host a variety of musical notables. In 1938 the auditorium was filled with “jitterbugs” who came to hear Benny Goodman’s swing orchestra. The list of performers is the Who’s Who of music: Rachmaninoff, Rudolf Serkin, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Heifetz, Pablo Casals, Andrews Segovia, Enrico Caruso, Lily Pons, Marian Anderson, Maria Callas, Paul Robeson, John Sutherland, Josef Jofmann, Leontyne Price…a seemingly endless list.
|Children join a group of grown-ups studying the Saturday matinee program in 1944 -- photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York|
Then, in the mid-1950s a group of developers purchased the hall with the intention of demolishing it for an office building. Although the deal fell through, Lincoln Center was being built further uptown and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra would soon vacate Carnegie Hall. The building was listed at $3 million; but there were no buyers. Demolition seemed certain.
Violinist Isaac Stern was determined that the historic building would not be bulldozed. He rallied public and artistic support to form the Artists’ Committee, the spearhead group of the Committee for Carnegie Hall. After much negotiation and endless meetings, on April 21, 1960 The New York Times reported that “The Board of Estimate has approved in principle the preservation of Carnegie Hall by having the city acquire it, Mayor Wagner announced yesterday.”
Under the deal approved by Governor Rockefeller, the city would own the concert hall and the Carnegie Hall Corporation would rent it. Rockefeller said the building was “a fitting monument” to “the great musical artists” who performed there over the years.
|photo by Alice Lum|
In 1985 a 17-month, $50 million remodeling and restoration was undertaken. On December 15, 1986 the hall reopened with a gala performance including Leonard Bernstein, Yo-Yo Ma, Isaac Stern, Marilyn Horne, and Vladimir Horowitz among others.