For a year and a half, Hill Auditorium was an eyesore and a
headache for University students, faculty and administration. The
beautiful red and tan mosaic that lies between the building and
North University Avenue had been covered with tarps, bricks, chunks
of insulation, dust and debris. A tall chain-link fence and
contractors’ trailers surrounded the site. To make matters
worse, the University Musical Society had difficulty finding large
venues for world-famous musicians. Academic ceremonies like
convocation had to be held elsewhere. The School of Music’s
large ensembles were forced to relocate concerts to less-than-ideal
settings like the Michigan Theater.
Hill Auditorium, dedicated on June 25, 1913, was in dire shape
before the renovation. The brick pattern that lies in front of the
building’s stately white columns was faded and damaged.
Aesthetically, Quinn Evans repaired and reworked the brick mosaic,
cleaned and replaced exterior doors, windows and lettering, and
repaired or replaced roof tiles.
Band-O-Rama, an annual fundraising concert that features the
University of Michigan Symphony Band, Concert Band and Marching
Band, had to be eliminated in 2002 and 2003. Symphony Band concerts
featuring the music of John Phillip Sousa and George Gershwin were
held in Michigan Theater to substitute for Band-O-Rama, and the
Collage Concert was relocated to the Power Center.
But the scheduling problems and ugly construction are finally
gone. At 1:00 this afternoon, Hill Auditorium’s status as a
historic site will be reaffirmed by an unveiling ceremony. Speakers
at the ceremony will include representatives from Quinn Evans
Architects, the firm that oversaw the renovation, School of Music
Dean Karen Wolff and UMS president Ken Fischer. The auditorium will
be open for self-led walking tours until 7:30 this evening.
“You’ve got a great hall that’s large.
It’s half the size of Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Avery
Fisher Hall (the former home of the New York Philharmonic),”
There’s no question that Hill is a hallowed site for the
performing arts. Musicians, like vocalists Jessey Norman, Cecilia
Bartolli and Enrico Caruso, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bandleader and
jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman have performed there. Leonard
Bernstein conducted the Vienna Philharmonic on Hill’s stage
during his 70th birthday tour. He chose to play only three American
cities: New York, Washington D.C. and Ann Arbor. There’s
definitely something special about Hill Auditorium.
Fischer said of the renovation, “There has been interest
in renovating Hill for a long, long time, and it was simply a
matter of when the University felt it had the resources to be able
to do the job.
“So they’re handling the renovation in several
phases, and this first phase is the renovation and restoration of
the hall as we know it now. The next phase of renovation will be,
we hope, a backstage addition.” This addition will
accommodate visiting artists as well as School of Music bands and
orchestras that regularly perform concerts. “Anyone who has
used Hill Auditorium knows that the backstage needs major expansion
and improvement,” Fischer explained.
First phase of the Hill renovations began on May 13, 2002. It
was estimated that the renovation would take 18 months to complete
and cost $38.6 million. To begin the process, the University
secured the expertise of Quinn Evans, an Ann Arbor firm that
specializes in restoring historic buildings. The firm has worked to
maintain and preserve structures like the Kennedy Center for the
Performing Arts Concert Hall, George Washington’s boyhood
home and parts of the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins
University. Here at the University, it has worked on the Detroit
Observatory, the School of Natural Resources and the Environment,
and classrooms in the Law School.
Some of the renovation’s more practical changes include an
increased number of restrooms, from 14 to 22 for men and from 10 to
30 for women, as well as one unisex restroom. Sound and light locks
have been added at the entrance of the auditorium from the lobby.
Sound locks will keep noise from the lobby and the sound of traffic
out of the performance space, and light locks will prevent light
from opened doors during daytime shows from seeping into the
auditorium. “If someone was walking around in the lobby, you
could hear a clip-clop sound inside the auditorium,” said
One of the most pragmatic — and most anticipated —
additions to the historic performance venue is the installation of
an air conditioning system. Electrical and ventilation systems have
also been replaced.
The most important renovation, however, is the addition of ramps
and elevators. Until now, the stage had been only accessible via
stairs; artists, audience members and students receiving degrees if
they needed wheelchairs or other assistive equipment could not
easily get onstage. The auditorium’s new design includes
ramps on either side of the stage so that anyone can easily enter
the stage area.
Additionally, the mezzanine area was only accessible by stairs.
For the first time in Hill’s existence, attendees who
experience difficulty climbing stairs can access the balcony area
via elevator. Seating for audience members with wheelchairs had
also been problematic in the past, but seats have been created on
both the main floor and the mezzanine to accommodate those with
assistive equipment. Though the changes in seating have reduced the
number of seats to 3,710 from 4,169, Fischer thinks that the loss
in revenue is worth it. “I applaud the University for their
overall policy of inclusion and diversity,” he said.
Another practical feature Hill lacked was a concession area. The
University worked with Quinn & Evans to create a snack bar in
the lobby in hopes that concessions will create a more fun
experience. “More and more people are looking at concertgoing
as a social experience. They want to meet with their friends, talk
about performances — and now they have a place to do that
right in Hill Auditorium,” Fischer explained. Concessions
will be served at both the Elizabeth E. Kennedy Lower Lobby and on
the mezzanine level.
While students, faculty and administration alike are excited
about the modern adjustments made to the facility, many are still
unsure of what Hill will sound like now that changes have been
The final acoustics test occurred this morning. Wolff explained,
“The architects were careful not to change Hill’s
signature sound. There was a bounce-back coming from the back of
the auditorium, but acousticians believe that this problem has been
School of Music alum Corynn Eggener said, “I always loved
(Hill’s) clarity. It’s so big and resonant, it has a
presence of its own.” One of her favorite memories of Hill
was waiting in line overnight for the UMS Half-Price Ticket Sale.
“That was one of the coolest experiences of my undergrad. We
Director of Bands Michael Haithcock, who conducts the Symphony
Band, summed up his feelings about the new Hill: “I hope it
sounds exactly the same. It’s glorious. The resonance in the
hall is almost perfect.”
—Jan. 8, 2004