By Meghan Berneking
It’s a homecoming over a decade in the making. Murmurs about a major renovation of Music Hall at 1241 Elm Street started stirring many years ago, with community leaders prompting discussions as to the most effective way to ensure one of Cincinnati’s most beloved buildings would remain part of the city’s cultural life for generations to come. Murmurs eventually blossomed into action, and in December 2015 crews broke ground on the first phase of construction.
Time was of the essence, and workers were scheduled around the clock shifts to ensure the project stayed on schedule. Immediately following the May Festival finale on May 28, 2016, even as patrons trickled out of the Hall, the Orchestra loaded out and the second phase of construction began in earnest.
“The Music Hall renovation has been a complex project on a number of levels. The sheer magnitude of the renovation, along with a 15-month construction schedule, made coordinating resources a challenge,” said Jeff Martin, vice president of Project Management for 3CDC. “Adding to the complexity of the project was the desire to maintain the building’s historical integrity, while modernizing amenities throughout the structure.”
Springer Auditorium’s beloved chandelier was carefully packed, crystal by crystal, and sent to St. Louis where it received a thorough cleaning and refurbishing. The Society for the Preservation of Music Hall oversaw the temporary safeguarding of the artwork and statues that called Music Hall home.
Over the decades, Music Hall had become a sort cultural museum where treasures from the Queen City’s artistic past had collected. Most of these artifacts have returned, while some have found homes in other buildings. Several of the items are now at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s new Otto M. Budig Theater.
“The figural cornices were originally part of Cincinnati’s ‘old Drury’—the National Theater—formerly on Sycamore between 3rd and 4th streets. Built in 1837 and demolished in 1940, the National was Cincinnati’s leading playhouse through the 1880s,” said Scott Santangelo, director of operations for Music Hall.
As construction continued, workers unearthed unexpected details inside the Venetian Gothic building, opening up windows no one knew existed and other long-forgotten historic features. One of the most delightful discoveries was the intricate stenciling patterns present on the walls of Corbett Tower. Art historians and restoration experts studied historic photos of the room and painstakingly recreated the neglected charm.
In the meantime, the Orchestra made its home away from home the Taft Theatre. CSO and Pops fans stayed the course throughout 2016-17 and enjoyed an unprecedented season featuring international musical luminaries including Lang Lang, Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma.
While concert halls around the world frequently undergo renovation, none have been quite as complex as Music Hall. Project architects needed to ensure that, as a National Historic Landmark, the building maintained its historic character while offering the modern amenities that concertgoers and performers expect. Music Hall is also unique in that it serves as the primary performance space for the CSO, Pops, May Festival, Opera and Ballet, each of which comes with a unique set of needs. Not to mention, the building will continue to be a vibrant community gathering place, hosting banquets, weddings, graduations, proms, trade shows and dozens of other events every year.
“Music Hall has always been a gathering place for Cincinnatians, and not exclusively for musical events. In its heyday Music Hall served as the city’s first Convention Center, hosting nationally popular Industrial Expositions, political conventions, sporting events, and a who’s who of celebrity speakers—including several Presidents,” said Santangelo. “The recent renovations ensure future generations will be able to create their own memories in a building that is a virtual time machine, connecting our past, present and future.”
On August 20, the musicians of the Orchestra stepped on the Music Hall stage for the first time in 15 months. The acoustic test rehearsal revealed a new, yet familiar sound that felt alive in every seat. With the Orchestra all seated in front of the proscenium, a new intimacy with the audience and amongst the players allows for new precision and immediacy of sound, while Music Hall’s characteristic warmth remains. While the moment was exciting, there was still work to be done, and while the CSO toured Europe for three weeks, project leaders back home raced against the clock to ensure all the moving parts were in place by the Grand Opening on October 6.
And here we are.
None of this happened automatically. It took an army of leaders, donors, construction workers, skilled technicians, acoustic consultants, architects, dedicated subscribers, staff members, supportive businesses and musicians to bring this courageous vision to life.
“The community’s overwhelming admiration for the building has been clear throughout project, and has served as a guiding principal for the work we have done. Perhaps no structure is more beloved in all of Cincinnati, and I feel honored to have helped update the building so that future generations may enjoy it for years to come,” said Martin.
When Reuben Springer began the public campaign to fundraise for Music Hall in 1875, he understood the heart of Cincinnati, and knew its citizens would step up. He could not have imagined that 142 years later, the hearts of Cincinnatians would contain the same generous spirit that made it happen again. Music Hall is physical proof that when a community comes together around a shared passion the result exceeds our boldest imaginations.\
Thanks to this unified generosity, music has a home in the Queen City for generations to come.