The world's most famous concert hall, New York City's Carnegie Hall, opened in 1891, proved important as an institution and, by setting a critical precedent for financing in the 1950s, for the future of the performing arts in America.
Designed by William Burnet Tuthill, an architect with a musical ear, the hall was praised for both its architecture and its acoustics following the opening performances by Tchaikovsky. Carnegie Hall's prestigious reputation was established by the quality of the performers who appeared there, and the way to get there was to "practice, practice, practice," the success or failure of a Carnegie Hall debut often determining whether or not a performer established a successful career.
Olin Downes, a music critic at the New York Times, wrote, "In the first quarter of this century [the city] became the musical center of the world. Nowhere else was to be met in the course of a season so many commanding personalities, interpretive and creative, of the period. New York was transformed from a cultural colony into a cultural capital." During that Golden Age and particularly between 1910-30, every one of the world's greatest instrumentalists appeared at least once every season in Carnegie Hall. Among conductors and orchestras, Arturo Toscanini conducted the New York Philharmonic there and Leopold Stokowski brought the Philadelphia Orchestra for regular annual series, as did the various conductors of the Boston
Although he provided two million dollars to build it, linking steel magnate Andrew Carnegie's name to the hall is among the great ironies of American cultural life. Carnegie's musical interests centered on bagpipe melodies and Scottish folk tunes and hymns played on an organ that awakened him each morning. The best statement of purpose he could offer the public when the cornerstone was laid in 1890 was the hope that the structure would "intertwine itself with the history of our country." On opening night, May 5, 1891, Morris Reno, president of the stock company that Carnegie had set up to manage the enterprise (for a profit), would advise that the hall had been "founded with the loftiest purposes, free from all disturbing private interests, devoted solely to the highest ideals of art…."
In fact, Carnegie had no such ideals. Nor was he motivated by needs for publicity or acclaim common to tycoons of the Gilded Age. Finally, his unspeakable treatment of workers at his Homestead, Pennsylvania, plant does not suggest sympathy for the common man who, hopefully, would attend performances. The best that can be said about Carnegie's plan for the hall was that, like his plan for the libraries he later founded, it was not an end in itself. For the libraries, he would make a grant for construction, and then it was up to the local community to raise operating funds. But it immediately became clear that such a pattern would not fit the Music (later, Carnegie) Hall. There simply was not enough rental business, and Carnegie had to underwrite operating deficits, which he did with frequent complaints.
New York's highly competitive social and musical establishments were unenthused by his generosity to begin with. In advance of opening night, the New York Times hoped that Music Hall presentations would educate rather than "merely entertain." William Steinway, a piano manufacturer who had a concert hall of his own, scoffed that "Mr. Carnegie's hall will never pay. Take our present Philharmonic concerts, for instance … increase the number of these high-class concerts to twelve, and financial disaster would be certain. The public can only stand a certain amount of this sort of music…."
A constant pressing need for cash inspired Carnegie's company to encourage not only musical but other types of renters. In December 1915, a large audience witnessed the launching of the first mass fund-raising campaign in American Jewish history for the relief of overseas brethren. Fresh from the Versailles Peace Conference in July 1919, President Woodrow Wilson disembarked in Hoboken, New Jersey, and proceeded immediately to the hall, where he made the first speech in his unsuccessful campaign for congressional approval of United States membership in the League of Nations. Tenants such as the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, whose graduates included Cecil B. De Mille, Agnes Moorehead, Rosalind Russell, and Spencer Tracy, contributed to the hall's international fame.
Carnegie Hall opened its 1925-26 season under new management. Carnegie had died in 1919, and although his board of directors continued to run the hall together with the Carnegie estate, it had remained unprofitable. Robert E. Simon, a prosperous realtor, then bought the building and kept his promise not to tear it down, although there were hints that he and his son wavered during the years of Simon family ownership.
Finally, when plans for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts were announced in 1959, Robert Simon Jr. announced that the hall would be razed in favor of a skyscraper. Music lovers were outraged, but New York was constantly tearing itself down and rebuilding, and there was no march by the masses to the hall in protest.
A volunteer Citizens' Committee for Carnegie Hall decided on behalf of all city residents (without any referendum) that the hall should be saved—and not with private funds. The committee favored the idea that the city should issue bonds to pay for the hall's purchase and renovation, with the bonded indebtedness to be paid off by a Carnegie Hall Corporation. Once the bonds were retired, the hall would become the property of the corporation, which could, if it wished, apply to the city for additional operating funds.
Thus was realized the concept that although cultural interests could not be legislated into existence, the financing for them could be, a precedent critical for future financing of the performing arts.
Damrosch, Walter. My Musical Life. New York, Charles Scribner'sSons, 1924.
Schickel, Richard. The World of Carnegie Hall. New York, Messner, 1960.