DSO opener celebrates Orchestra Hall centennial

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
Orchestra Hall, left, was slated for demolition in 1970, but a preservation effort rescued the building, which the Detroit Symphony Orchestra moved back into in 1989.

Light the candles -- a Detroit treasure is about to turn 100. 

Orchestra Hall, the grande dame of Michigan concert halls with the astonishing acoustics, will celebrate its centennial all year. 

Its official birthday is Oct. 23, but in a nod to the anniversary, Friday-Sunday's opening weekend will recreate the exact program the Detroit Symphony Orchestra played under the direction of conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch at the hall's 1919 inauguration.

The performance will open with the Star-Spangled Banner, followed by selections from Weber, Mozart, Bach, and finally Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. 

"I’m sure Gabrilowitsch was proud of that program," said Erik Rönmark, DSO vice-president and general manager, "and felt it was worthy of him, the orchestra and that great new hall. So here we are 100 years later, and it just seemed like a fitting tribute."

Famously, the conductor -- who seems to have been a bit full of himself -- said he would only renew his contract if a hall were built that rose to the level of both the city and its musicians. 

The great building went up in a hurry. Designed by Detroit architect C. Howard Crane in a combination of Beaux Arts and art deco, Orchestra Hall was finished in about six months.

Architect C. Howard Crane's Orchestra Hall, shortly after its 1919 opening.

"It is no exaggeration to say that Orchestra Hall is on the shortlist of the greatest concert halls in the world for classical music in terms of acoustics," said Mark Stryker, one-time Detroit Free Press music critic whose new history, "Destiny: 100 Years of Music, Magic, and Community at Orchestra Hall in Detroit," will first be available at the hall Oct. 4. 

"It` offers," he added, "a magic triangle of warmth, resonance, and clarity."

The hall at Parsons and Woodward is the oldest of Detroit's great cultural landmarks. Cass Gilbert's Main Branch of the Detroit Public Library opened in 1921, George Mason's Masonic Temple in 1926, and the Detroit Institute of Arts by Paul Philippe Cret in 1927.

"We're so excited to celebrate Orchestra Hall's centennial," said DSO President & CEO Anne Parsons. "I like to say that this orchestra is a character in a story, but the building itself has also been a character in so many dramas."

Indeed, it's a 100-year drama of consecration, abandonment and rediscovery of a building that, a little like the hero in the "Perils of Pauline," looked as if it was doomed at any number of junctures, but managed against the odds to survive and ultimately triumph. 

Indeed, you could take Orchestra Hall's unlikely resurrection in the 1970s and 80s as an early sign that Detroit's future would lie in reviving its long-abandoned monuments. 

The DSO played in its magnificent new home for 20 years, until the symphony fell into arrears with the hall's bondholders, and was forced to seek cheaper quarters at Masonic Temple. The last DSO concert in Orchestra Hall before the move was March 18, 1939. 

The building sat empty for a year, and briefly became the Town Theater, with movies and burlesque. By 1941, however, it reopened as the Paradise Theatre, one of the country's great jazz and big-band venues. Legends from Louis Armstrong to Count Basie to Ella Fitzgerald graced its stage for the next 10 years, until the theater went out of business in 1951. Sometime later, the Church of Our Prayer took over the premises. 

Like many of Detroit's great structures, the building was eventually all but abandoned, sitting empty and forlorn for about a dozen years, give or take. 

Rebuilding the box seats during the 1970s-80s renovation of Orchestra Hall.

In 1970, one Herman Rapz, a sharp-eyed guard at a Detroit Bank & Trust across Woodward, saw city workers entering the boarded-up structure.

It turned out Orchestra Hall was to be demolished in two weeks, and Water Board employees were checking what needed to be shut off before the wrecking ball arrived. 

Word ricocheted down Woodward to the orchestra, which for years had been fighting the lackluster acoustics at their most-recent home in Ford Auditorium on Hart Plaza. Pushing against decades of indifference and a general sense that the city's decline was irreversible, musicians launched a quixotic campaign to save the hall many of them had never been in. 

The challenge was herculean, what with a gaping hole in the roof and a basement that had been flooded for an unknown number of years. To inspire investors, a group of DSO musicians even performed in the dilapidated hall in 1971, which had to have startled the resident pigeon population.

DSO music director Sixten Ehrling and Concertmaster Gordon Staples survey the ruins of Orchestra Hall in the early 1970s.

"People ask how did you do it?" said Paul Ganson, a bassoonist who headed up the hastily formed Save Orchestra Hall Inc. He cited the famous Samuel Johnson line about an upcoming hanging and its talent for concentrating the mind. 

"So all our minds were concentrated wonderfully," said Ganson, who collaborated with author Laurie Lanzen Harris on the 2016 book, "The Detroit Symphony Orchestra: Grace, Grit, and Glory" from Wayne State University Press.

Ganson secured the assistance of Mel Ravitz, president of the Detroit Common Council, who issued a stay for the demolition. Ultimately, the owner -- Gino's chain of fast-food outlets -- offered to sell the hall to Save Orchestra Hall at cost, and gave the committee of musicians, architects, music lovers and historic preservationists time to raise the necessary funds. 

Ganson estimates the final cost of renovating the grand hall at about $7.5 million.

By the late 1970s, Harris writes, Orchestra Hall's renovation was far enough along for limited performances here and there. But it wouldn't be until 1989 that the orchestra was able to ditch Ford Auditorium and return to its ancestral home for good. 

Built in 1919 by Detroit architect C. Howard Crane, cellist Pablo Casals called Orchestra Hall "an acoustical marvel."


(313) 222-6021


DSO Opening Weekend

Oct. 4-6

Weber - Overture to "Oberon," Mozart - Concerto for Two Pianos, Bach - Concerto No. 2 for Three Pianos, Beethoven - Symphony No. 5

Orchestra Hall, 3711 Woodward, Detroit

8 p.m. Fri. & Sat; 3 p.m. Sun.

$15 - $105 

(313) 576-5111