In 1914, ten Detroit women donated $10 each to create a Detroit Symphony Orchestra. They agreed to raise another $1,000 but quickly they recruited more money, and by February 16, 1914, they had sufficient funds to hold their first concert directed by the first leader, Weston Gales. In this booming economic era, the funds flowed freely, and by 1917, the DSO recruited as their director, the distinguished and acclaimed Ossip Gabrilowitsh, a Russian who was a friend of Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Gabrilowitsh was a skilled pianist internationally known for his interpretation of Frederic Chopin.
Gabrilowitsh was such a distinguished and popular musician that he was recruited by other orchestras. It is not just Heisman Trophy winners and Cy Young awardees who can name their own price. To keep Gabrilowitsh in Detroit, the leaders of the DSO built a hall suitable to his aspirations and to the city’s increasing prominence. The planning for Detroit Cultural Center called for a music hall at that location, but the time to acquire and clear property there was so long that Gabrilowitch would be gone for a more rewarding directorship in another major city. So the DSO leaders decided to quickly build the orchestra hall that you see above. This kept him in the Motor City for the remainder of his career.
Fortunately the great theater architect of that age—C. Howard Crane—lived in Detroit. He is best known for the magnificent movie houses he designed in the silent film era, such as the Fox Theater on Woodward. Land was found in the 3700 block of Woodward, and Crane went to work on a project that was executed within eighteen months. At first glance, you might think that this structure is a bit too simple, even plain. However, if you study the Woodward Avenue façade, you begin to see the immense detail that Crane incorporated. You see the five bays separated by Corinthian columns. Looking more closely, you see that there are two stories of windows within the bays, topped by garlanded transoms. A Greek fretwork band separates the five bays from the pavilion at greater height. The roof is flat, but there is a fretwork cornice around the building. An elaborately detailed cartouche projects out onto Woodward. On October 23, 1919, the DSO gave their first concert in the new hall.
The hall that Crane designed for Gabrilowitsh was acoustically perfect, so it is no surprise that many of the world’s greatest musicians appeared here, including Marian Anderson, Enrico Caruso, Pablo Caslas, Isadora Duncan, Jascha Heifetz, Richard Strauss and Sergi Rachmaninoff. In 1922, Detroit’s orchestra became the first to have their concerts broadcast live by a radio station. Twelve years later, they were the first orchestra to be broadcast nationwide on a radio network.
The Depression wreaked havoc with Detroit’s population, its employers and its cultural institutions. Twice, financial crises forced the DSO to disband. By 1939, they could no longer afford to perform in Orchestra Hall. When funds allowed the recreation of the orchestra, they performed in several locations, including the Detroit Opera House.
One of the early post-World War II efforts to develop the city’s beautiful waterfront involved building the Ford Auditorium on the River near the intersection of Woodward and Jefferson. From 1956 to 1989, the DSO gave concerts in that venue, one that had a reputation for deficient acoustics.
In 1941, Orchestra Hall was renamed Paradise Theater, and for a decade, it was used for music performances and movies. That business dried up and the Hall was closed in 1951. In 1955, the magnificent hall became the Church of Our Prayer. Subsequently, the seats were removed, and in 1970, the Hall was scheduled for demolitions so that a parking lot could be located there.
In the late 1960s, a concern developed about the destruction of Detroit’s architecture and a non-profit group—Save Orchestra Hall—proposed the restoration of Orchestra Hall for the DSO. It took several decades, but the building was refurbished to its original glory, and in 1989, the DSO moved back into the home built for it seven decades earlier. In the 1990s, Orchestra Hall became a catalyst for a growing cultural center. Max Fisher donated funds for the adjoining Fisher Hall, a building opened in 2003 providing space for students and practice. Then the Detroit Public Schools began building a huge and magnificent school for the performing arts on the same campus. When it opens in 2006, this will be this country’s most modern and attractive school for the performing arts.
Architect: C. Howard Crane
Date of Construction: 1919
Architectural style: Beaux Arts
Date of Restoration: 1989
Architects for the Restoration: Quinn Evans and Richard Frank
Use in 2004: Orchestra Hall
City of Detroit Local Historic District: Established in 1970
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P4472 Listed December 11, 1970
National Register of Historic Places: #71000429; Listed in 1971
Photo: Andrew Chandler; July, 2004
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