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100 years of Hill Auditorium

Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library, BL005045

By Akshay Seth, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 8, 2012

May 14, 1913: The sun was about to set, and in just a few hours’ time, students, faculty and local residents would fill the newly opened Hill Auditorium as the University began celebrations for its 20th annual Fall Festival, a city-wide commemoration of music marked through concerts by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the University Choral Union.

The hall, reportedly packed to maximum capacity, was one of the largest concert venues ever designed in the country.

The need for a world class concert hall was secondary. Hill Auditorium was originally intended to seat all University students and faculty members, giving college residents their own gathering venue where events such as graduation and commencement could be held without any inconveniences due to a lack of space.

Still, many individuals — like then Michigan Gov. Woodbridge Ferris who spoke at the dedication ceremony — realized the potential for music on a grand scale to unite and inspire the Ann Arbor community.

“The Hill Auditorium is to be a sort of college in itself, a university in itself for awakening the great possibilities that even the ordinary man possesses,” Ferris said at the dedication ceremony for the auditorium in June of 1913.

The Hall

The auditorium itself covers 23,000 feet of ground and stands approximately 70 feet high, with a bit of extra elevation added by a set of steps that seem to lift the hall above the street. Walking down North University Avenue, it’s the first building that catches your eye, a controlled sense of grandeur. The classic, domineering look is accompanied by a simple red brick exterior, giving the building a welcoming feel.

Inside, the symmetry of the design draws your eyes forward and then upward, toward the focal point of the entire building — the stage — and, finally, the jaw-dropping glass ceiling.

Charlie Reischl, a junior bassist in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance who does research on Hill Auditorium for the University Musical Society, described his first time performing at the Hill as awe-inspiring.

“I was in seventh grade, playing with some middle-school and high-school orchestras,” Reischl said. “I’m telling you, looking up from that stage towards the ceiling had my lungs sinking to my feet. It really tweaks with your brains, the scale of it.”

But it has taken 100 years for Hill to become what it is today, and opening night in 1913 marked the beginning of a new era for the University — an era that saw Ann Arbor grow into one of the music hubs of the world.

More than a gift

The hall’s opening marked more than a mere cultural achievement — it was the conclusion of a long struggle between the state and the University to secure funding for construction. Regardless of the hall’s patent necessity, the University’s Board of Regents had been unable to convince state legislators to shoulder the burden of constructing a new concert hall, especially after the state of Michigan had gifted University Hall (located in the modern Angell Hall complex) in 1872.

But University Hall had slowly fallen into disrepair, and in the first May Festival of 1894, it became apparent that the aging hall’s leaky roof and worn stage could no longer withstand many more performances. University Hall was later deemed a “fire trap” by maintenance staff and was demolished in 1950 to prevent students from injury.

Despite frequent complaints, the state government did not see funneling close to a half-million dollars into the construction of a concert hall as economically feasible.

Finally, then-regent Arthur Hill, a prominent businessman who had been paying close attention to the debate for a new concert hall, was convinced by University of Musical Society president Francis Kelsey that the new facility could have an extremely positive impact on students for years to come.

“The necessity of such a building has long been apparent, and possibilities are great,” Hill wrote in his last will and testament. “Yet there has been no hope that the state could furnish for a long time a building so necessary as an adequate assembly hall where all the students of the University, their friends and the faculty might meet.”

Five years before his death, Hill changed his will in order to bequest $200,000 to the University for a new state-of-the-art concert hall, which was no small sum considering that at the time, an average American home cost approximately $3,500. Accounting for inflation, $200,000 would amount to millions in today’s currency.

In addition to Hill’s large donation, $150,000 was necessary to purchase the required land and begin construction.

LSA alum Tamar Galed, whose history thesis focuses on Hill Auditorium, wrote that in order to procure the required funding, politician Charles Sink, who would later serve as UMS president, traveled to the state legislature. He managed to convince government officials that the auditorium would have a lasting positive impact on the cultural and economic atmosphere of Michigan.

“(Sink) managed to convince the state government that Hill Auditorium was more than just a gift to the University,” Galed wrote in his thesis. “It was an investment for our college’s future.”

Just the basics

Before construction began in 1911, three basic requirements for Hill Auditorium were identified: The finished hall had to be large enough to host the entire student body, the acoustics of the auditorium had to be sufficiently developed so a single speaker’s unamplified voice would be audible to the entire audience, and Hill had to be able to house the celebrated Columbian Organ, which had been purchased in 1894 for $25,000 through the efforts of Kelsey and UMS.

Reischl said the organ is still regarded as one of the auditorium’s crown jewels.

“(The organ) was the most technologically advanced of its time and a marvel to behold,” Reischl said. “It was modified and improved before being moved to Hill in 1913, where it’s still used by students and teachers today.”

The organ was later renamed the Freize Memorial Organ in honor of Henry Simmons Freize, a Latin professor and the first acting president of UMS. Today, the organ serves as the focal point of the auditorium’s parabolically curved interior.

To oversee construction of the new hall, then-University president H.B. Hutchins chose renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn.

Sophie Kruz, a video producer for UMS who is currently making a documentary about the organization’s 100-year history in Hill Auditorium, said the decision to pick Kahn was based largely on his previous work with large-scale factory design, which required a reinforced concrete construction technique he developed.

“The reinforced concrete technique allowed Kahn to construct buildings without needing to use wooden support beams,” Kruz said. “Without the need of support beams, the hall could be made large enough to be molded into the dimensions and shape necessary for the required acoustics.”

The single tilted parabolic shape that Kahn and acoustics engineer Hugh Tallant chose was based on Tallant’s analysis of how sound traveled in an enclosed structure.

“Tallant saw the movement of sound inside a building as very similar to light bouncing off a mirror, and he wanted to direct it at the audience,” Reischl said. “And (looking) back at the design layout for Hill, it’s interesting noting that the hall really looks like a giant megaphone blaring music in the direction of the audience members.”

Kahn was also known to be an efficient designer, opting for a simple, brick-layered exterior and a high-utility interior. As noted by Kruz, this utility came in the form of fluid natural lighting, a developed ventilation system and, of course, excellent acoustics.

“Kahn was well known for his innovation and eye towards efficiency in design,” Kruz said. “He had a great ability to design buildings for function and I think it’s visible in Hill.”

Kahn wrapped construction of the building in approximately two years. Upon completion in 1913, the venue was already being regarded as a monument to acoustic design comparable to Carnegie Hall in New York City.

After performing in the May Festival of 1913, Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, called the auditorium flawless.

“It is perfect. There seems to be no flaw anywhere; the acoustics are perfect,” Stock told the Daily in an article published in 1913. “Like a violin, such a building improves with age; it must get tempered to the sound. You should be proud of your new auditorium; there is not another building like it in the country.”

From Kombrink to Caruso

Over the years, news of the auditorium’s supposed unmatched acoustical quality reached distinguished performers across the world. Hill was quickly becoming one of the most lauded music centers in the country.

Famous soprano Ilona Kombrink felt that the interest inspired by the hall was a result of how easily the acoustics enhanced merely average performances.

“I think anyone could perform there and achieve an excellence,” Kombrink wrote in a 1980 letter to UMS. “The hall fairly takes you by the hand acoustically and gives you a marvelous platform on which to perform.”

Kruz, whose documentary takes an in-depth look at the development and growth of Hill Auditorium, said perhaps the most recognizable performance of the hall’s beginning years was by famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso in 1919.

She explained how Charles Sink, a leader of UMS at the time, traveled to New York to petition Caruso to bring his talents to Michigan.

“This was a huge accomplishment because Caruso was one of the most famous singers in the world at that time,” Kruz said. “I think his decision to perform in this small, mid-western town really put UMS and Ann Arbor on the map as a destination for major concert artists.”

The hall has inspired a sense of loyalty in the artists who have graced its stage. According to associate professor of musicology Mark Clague, the undeniable allure of the auditorium is likely a result of the audience interaction provided by the hall’s acoustics.

“As a performer, the fact that you can hear this wave of applause coming back at you lets you establish a very satisfying communication between the stage and the audience,” Clague said. “This symbiotic relationship that Hill creates between the performer and the audience is mutually inspiring.”

Rheme Sloan, a junior vocalist in the School of MT&D, added that performing in the acoustical environment of Hill Auditorium allows artists to further hone their individual talent.

“When you’re singing on the Hill stage, the first thing you notice is that you can’t immediately hear the person singing next to you,” Sloan said. “And that’s when being a musician really comes into play because you really have no one to rely on but yourself.”

Leonard Bernstein, the American composer, performed the 1988 Bernstein Benefit concert in which he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for what would be his last time in Ann Arbor.

“I remember the Leonard Bernstein concert because I was a student in the School of Music at the time,” Clague said. “The performance that he gave that night was without a doubt my favorite performance ever at Hill. The whole experience was just riveting.

“I remember he would insist on waiting backstage to meet with anyone who was willing. As I look back on it, getting to meet him had a profound influence on me as a musician and a teacher,” he added.

Celebrating community

It’s difficult to measure the impact the auditorium has had on Ann Arbor and the University because of the multitude of experiences it has provided for students over the past century.

“Hill has seen two world wars in its lifetime and in those times of war, it was always a place where people could just gather and celebrate music,” Kruz said.

Reischl added that the sheer amount of notoriety the hall has given Ann Arbor in the music world is something to be marveled at and will keep artists coming back for decades to come.

“The fact that the New York Philharmonic chooses Hill as one of three or four stops on a tour is nothing short of amazing,” Reischl said. “There are not many other college halls that attract that kind of talent.”

Just as UMS took the initiative to procure funding for the construction of the hall 100 years ago, the organization is now leading celebrations of Hill’s upcoming anniversary.

In order to mark the century of memories the hall has inspired in Ann Arbor, UMS will be hosting a Hill Immersion Day on Feb. 2, 2013. The day will start with “Saturday Morning Physics,” a special event in which experts will discuss the science behind one of the most acoustically perfect halls in the world. The celebration will continue with tours and activities highlighting the relationship between Hill and the community, culminating with the premiere of Kruz’s documentary about the hall.

Clague, who is currently hosting a three-part lecture on the history of Hill and its relationship with the University, explained that Hill has become more than just a concert hall during its 100 years.

“I feel like Hill now serves as a diplomatic mission between the school and the community,” Clague said. “Hill has brought a range of voices and cultures to the campus and I think it’s our duty to reach out and put the University in service of our city.”


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