The Building of the Hall

Classic Arts Features   The Building of the Hall
How the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra found its first permanent home in an old movie palace.

When the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra performed in Powell Symphony Hall on January 24, 1968, it had a home of its own for the first time since its inception in 1880. At the sold-out inaugural concert conducted by Music Director Eleazar De Carvalho, the Orchestra performed Gunther Schuller's Fanfare for St. Louis (written especially for the occasion) and, appropriately, the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's The Building of the House.

Many St. Louisans know that this superb concert hall was originally the St. Louis Theater, a plush movie house built in the 1920s. Forty years later, however, the popularity of television and drive-ins‹not to mention the suburbs‹had eliminated the need for 4,000-seat urban movie theaters. As a result, the St. Louis Theater, like many of the cavernous movie theaters of its day, stopped showing films (except for a brief run of the 1965 blockbuster The Sound of Music) and began to deteriorate slowly.

But after leasing the theater for one concert during the 1965-66 season, the Symphony's Board saw the potential in the diamond-in-the-rough at Delmar and Grand. Looking beyond the dusty stage and tattered curtains, George Berry, principal bassoon, remembers "how astonished the musicians and audience were at the hall's acoustics." Unlike most old movie theaters, which were built to show silent films, the St. Louis Theater had been acoustically designed to carry the live voices of vaudeville performers.

In April 1966, the Symphony's Board voted to purchase the theater and begin extensive renovations. After decades of leasing concert space, including stints at the Mercantile Library Hall and the Odeon, and 34 years at Kiel Opera House, a first-rate symphony concert hall was about to become a reality.

No longer would concerts be interrupted by the sounds of sports fans in the adjacent Kiel Auditorium. "I remember with clarity the difficulties of playing in the old public auditorium downtown [at the Kiel]," recalled the late virtuoso Isaac Stern, a few years ago, "the slow movements punctuated by the cheers of the basketball crowd just behind the barrier that divided the stage in half. Indeed, I spent more than a few moments watching the games during the waiting time before going on stage and during intermission."

At a time when many cities were building gleaming new multi-purpose performance halls, the Symphony Board's decision was considered pioneering and earned praise from urban planners across the country. Renovating and reusing architectural gems for new purposes was not as widespread then as it is today.

Funding for the renovations came from a number of sources. Longtime supporter Oscar Johnson Jr. had already donated $500,000 toward obtaining a permanent concert hall even before the Board had decided to purchase the St. Louis Theater. Then, the Ford Foundation stepped up with a $500,000 donation and an additional $2 million challenge grant. Mrs. Walter S. Powell was the first to respond, pledging $1 million toward the Ford challenge, and other members of the community soon followed her generous lead.

A team of specialists then was assembled to handle the rebirth of the venerable old structure. One of the first consultants was Heinrich Keilholz, who had successfully improved the acoustics of Cleveland's Severance Hall. Although Keilholz's suggestions were ultimately rejected, he certainly had a unique way of testing the auditorium's acoustics: As he walked the aisles with a tape recorder, a colleague stood on stage firing blanks from a pistol.

Dr. Cyril Harris, a nationally recognized professor of architecture and acoustics, was summoned, and his proposal to shape and refine the sound of the auditorium was carried out. Openings around doors and lights were sealed, plaster walls were thickened, wood flooring was laid, and a permanent onstage shell was added to augment the acoustics. Nothing was left to chance, including sight lines, lighting, and the locations of service facilities

Making the hall aesthetically pleasing for the patrons was also imperative. The Old World ambience was to be retained and enhanced. Terrazzo floors were replaced with white marble floors, new drapes were hung, and plaster moldings were refurbished with ornamental gold leaf. There was so much molding throughout the hall that domestic supplies of gold leaf were exhausted and more had to be flown in from Germany. Some original design details were retained and restored, including the wall panels in the foyer depicting violins and the four original crystal chandeliers hanging from the 30-foot ceiling in the magnificent 1,500-square-foot Wightman Grand Foyer.

A bar from New York's old Metropolitan Opera House was rescued from demolition and installed on the second level beneath the impressive stained glass image of Saint Louis IX on horseback. Grand Tier boxes were added, and seats in the auditorium were upholstered in red to match the new carpeting throughout the hall. Every material used was acoustically tested for its absorption of sound.

All of this attention to detail paid off. Powell Symphony Hall radiates a genuine feeling of tradition, and is ranked as one of the world's finest concert halls. The hall's rich sound is perfect for recording, as the Orchestra's 44 Grammy nominations would suggest. First-time visitors of all ages are awestruck at the Versailles-like grandeur, and musicians from around the world have applauded the acoustics.

Stern, who performed in the first subscription concerts at Powell Symphony Hall, noted, "It has a warmth that enhances a performance‹a pleasure for a musician. It ranks with Carnegie Hall in New York and Symphony Hall in Boston."

"This is one of the few halls which has it all," says flutist James Galway. "Beautiful, warm acoustics, a foyer fit for a king's banquet, and an overall décor which adds another dimension to any occasion."

And SLSO's Music Advisor, Itzhak Perlman, adds, "The acoustics are wonderful and the ambience gives me a feeling of intimacy. The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and Powell Symphony Hall‹what an unbeatable combination!"

The Symphony's Board of Directors was indeed visionary. Following the successful transformation of the St. Louis Theater, vintage movie theaters in Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Atlanta, Cleveland, Boston, and elsewhere‹including St. Louis's own Fox Theatre‹have been successfully converted into live performance venues.

In 2002, more than $2 million was invested in a modern heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning system for Powell‹replacing 77-year-old boilers and making the hall more comfortable and useable year-round. It is hoped that more maintenance and investment can be done as the Symphony's financial position improves.

Today, more than 200,000 people enter Powell Symphony Hall each year for orchestral concerts, choral performances, children's education concerts, and even weddings and graduations. The once-grand movie palace is an even grander concert hall, and, like its world-class resident orchestra, it is known internationally for its excellence.

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