On October 23rd this year, Orchestra Hall turns 100.
The home to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) is considered by many—and has been scientifically verified—to have some of the best acoustics of any venue in the world. It also has a gorgeous main hall that’s filled to the brim with ornamental details.
But this iconic building has had rocky periods throughout nearly its entire existence. Fortunately, as it approaches its 100th birthday, the venue is experiencing a time of relative stability.
Let’s take a look back at Orchestra Hall and appreciate this essential Detroit institution.
In the 1910s, as Detroit was booming, the DSO wanted the talented Ossip Gabrilowitsch to become its music director. But the Russian-born musician would only agree to take the position if the DSO’s board built a new hall for the orchestra.
So they did. And with remarkable speed. Orchestra Hall was built in just six months and had its inaugural concert on October 23, 1919.
The Beaux-Arts building was designed by C. Howard Crane. The great architect was mostly known for his “theater palaces,” like the Fox and United Artist theatres—this was the only concert venue he ever designed.
Possibly due to the expedited construction timeline, the exterior is relatively unadorned. The brick building has a few limestone details on its facade, like the center crest, frieze, and Neoclassical columns.
The 2,000-seat main hall, however, is breathtaking. There’s dozens of painted panels and archways, including the grand proscenium arch surrounding the stage, as well as corbels, medallions, and much more.
But the early enthusiasm for Orchestra Hall wouldn’t last long.
Years of challenge
By 1939, the Great Depression forced the DSO to relocate to the Masonic Temple. Soon after, Orchestra Hall reopened as a jazz venue called the Paradise Theatre. From 1941 to 1951, it hosted many of the eras seminal jazz musicians, like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday.
The hall was briefly occupied by a church in the 1950s before becoming vacant. For many years, it sat empty and fell into a state of disrepair. Eventually, there were holes in the ceiling, peeling plaster, and even pigeons roosting in the grand hall. Mark Stryker, former music critic at the Detroit Free Press, described the state of the hall in the 1970s as “apocalyptic.”
It seemed like the venue might have to be demolished. But a group of dedicated preservationists, “Save Orchestra Hall,” did in fact save it. They bought the building, raised funds, and eventually completed a $6.8 million restoration that took nearly 20 years.
As part of the restoration, the panels were painted—which was part of the original plan but never implemented—including six portraits on the ceiling of people who were important to the hall’s history: Gabrilowitsch and his wife Clara Clemens, DSO benefactors Horace and Anna Dodge, C. Howard Crane, and DSO board member William H. Murphy.
The DSO officially moved back to their original home in 1989.
One reason so many people love Orchestra Hall is because of its acoustics. According to Ben Breuninger, public relations manager at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, they’re considered “nearly flawless.”
Several factors contribute to the hall’s fidelity. It’s shoebox shape, as opposed to a fan shape which is better for site lines, is ideal for sound travel. The high-ceilinged stage—built to accommodate theater or opera—and cloud panels added in the ‘80s allows low-frequency bass sounds to resonate before heading out to the audience.
Breuninger says that the quality of sound is more or less the same for any seat in the house. The only real difference between the first and last row is volume.
And this incredibly fidelity has been scientifically proven. German-based HEAD Acoustics tested its acoustics with spectrograms placed at various points in the theatre and came to the conclusion that, “Detroit’s Orchestra Hall stands among the small handful of concert halls of absolute world-class quality.”
Orchestra Hall has also been going through a period of stability since a six-month strike by the DSO that ended in 2011.
The Max M. Fisher Music Center addition was completed in 2003, expanding the lobby and adding more space. It got a $3.5 million gift to add a new venue for additional programming. It’s looking to build on an outdoor space in the hall’s backyard. And the DSO has taken its repertoire outside Orchestra Hall with its Neighborhood Concert series.
“There’s been a large change in how we’ve thought about what the DSO can be,” Breuninger says. “Orchestra Hall will always home our home, it’s where we want people to come experience the symphony, but we’re also meeting audiences where they are now. And that’s made us cherish the hall even more.”
The DSO will play concerts throughout the next season celebrating Orchestra Hall’s 100th anniversary. Its first concerts of the season, from October 4 through 6, will pay homage to the hall’s opening night 100 years ago. And an official birthday concert on October 23 will be free to the public.