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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.