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Creating a Home for The Cleveland Orchestra

Severance Hall serves as the home of The Cleveland Orchestra for concerts, rehearsals, and administration. The building is also rented by a variety of local organizations and private citizens for performances, meetings, and gala events. The Hall’s architectural significance has been recognized by local and national preservation societies, including the Cleveland Landmarks Commission and the National Register of Historic Places, and Severance Hall is a recipient of the Honor Award by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

After The Cleveland Orchestra’s inaugural concert at Severance Hall on February 5, 1931, a Cleveland newspaper editorial stated: “We believe that Mr. Severance intended to build a temple to music and not a temple to wealth; and we believe it is his intention that all music lovers should be welcome there.” John Long Severance was the president of the Musical Arts Association from 1921-1936, and he and his wife Elisabeth donated most of the funds necessary to erect the magnificent building meant to be the permanent home of the Orchestra. Severance Hall was designed by Walker & Weeks with an elegant Georgian exterior that harmonized with the classical architecture of other prominent buildings in the University Circle area. The interior of the building reflects a combination of design styles, including Art Deco, Egyptian Revival, Classicism, and Modernism. The landmark building was recognized as one of the most modern, up-to-date concert facilities in America when it opened in 1931.

Design and Construction

For the first decade after its founding in 1918, The Cleveland Orchestra led a nomadic existence, performing in auditoriums and theaters throughout the city and on tour. Beginning with its second season, its major subscription series was presented at Masonic Auditorium but scheduling conflicts there prevented further expansion of the concert season.

In 1928, John Long Severance and his wife, Elisabeth, announced a $1-million pledge toward the construction of a permanent home for The Cleveland Orchestra. Severance, whose father had served as treasurer of Rockefeller's Standard Oil, was then the president of the Orchestra's board of trustees, where he served from 1921-36. But shortly after that announcement Elisabeth Severance died unexpectedly and, in the months and years that followed, Mr. Severance devoted his energies and finances toward realizing the new hall as a memorial to his wife. He gave nearly three times his initial pledge toward the building's design and construction, and the overall cost of the hall represented a total investment of nearly $7 million from Severance, other benefactors, and the public.

The Orchestra chose to site the new hall at a location in the heart of Cleveland's University Circle area, an idyllic setting on the city's east side that serves as home to an unrivalled concentration of major cultural, medical, and educational institutions – including the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Institute of Music, and what is today Case Western Reserve University.

The Cleveland architectural firm of Walker & Weeks was chosen to design the Orchestra's new home. As the city's leading architects, they were responsible for much of Cleveland' s visual character in the expansion years during and just after World War I and they designed such landmark buildings as Cleveland Public Auditorium (1922), Federal Reserve Bank (1923), Cleveland Public Library (1925), and Allen Memorial Medical Library (1926). Their work emphasized beautifully-crafted, monumental buildings that synthesized a variety of popular and classic styles.

For the new concert hall, Walker & Weeks created a design that also reflected John L. Severance's desire for an elegant structure that would incorporate the finest materials and the most advanced features available at the time of its construction. The Georgian exterior was chosen to harmonize with the classical architecture of the Cleveland Museum of Art. The regional setting was evident in the Ohio sandstone used for the terrace and base of the building, while the upper sections were built of Indiana limestone.

The interior rooms and areas reflected a planned and harmonious eclecticism. The building included a grand entrance foyer with soaring columns, and a small performance hall for chamber concerts as well as the main concert hall. Certain design elements used throughout the building were intended to tie together the diverse styles of Art Deco, French Nouveau, Classicism, Egyptian Revival, and Modernism. One such unifying design idea was the lotus blossom, said to have been the favorite flower of Mrs. Severance. Lotus flowers and papyrus leaf patterns appear in many shapes, formats, and sizes throughout the public areas of the hall.

Construction of Severance Hall began in December 1929 and was completed by early 1931. The hall's gala inaugural concert was conducted by Nikolai Sokoloff, the Orchestra’s founding music director, on February 5, 1931. The program included performances of Bach's Passacaglia (as orchestrated by Alexander Goedicke), the world premiere of Charles Martin Loeffler’s Evocation, and Brahms’s First Symphony.

At intermission of the opening night concert, Dudley S. Blossom Sr., vice president of the Musical Arts Association, recognized John L. Severance’s generosity and declared that Severance Hall was, “in the last analysis, a gift to all the people of Cleveland. It is they who are the real beneficiary; it is they who are going to come here day after day and year after year to enjoy the comfort, the charm, and the loveliness of this beautiful hall.”

The Cleveland Sound

From the day it opened, Severance Hall helped to shape The Cleveland Orchestra into the ensemble it is today. Among the first concert halls designed and built with radio broadcasting capability, Severance Hall helped to carry the name of Cleveland across the country. Having its own home provided the Orchestra with the ability to rehearse and perform in a single acoustic environment.

It quickly became apparent, however, that Severance Hall's original acoustics were not ideal for a symphonic concert hall. After his first decade as music director, George Szell insisted on the first major changes to the auditorium. With consultation from Heinrich Keilholz, who had just completed renovations at the Vienna State Opera, a new stage shell was erected inside Severance Hall during the summer of 1958. Its curved maple side panels were filled with sand to a height of nine feet in order to create an especially solid and reflective surface. Matching wooden panels overhead completely enclosed the stage to reflect sound into the auditorium. To further increase the hall's reverberance, carpeting and curtains were removed from the seating areas.

The debut of the new Severance Hall sound in the fall of 1958 was deemed an unqualified success. The new acoustics helped The Cleveland Orchestra quickly refine and polish its distinct and characteristic sound under Szell's expert guidance. Frequently acclaimed for their uniformity in performance and the chamber music-like qualities of their playing, the Orchestra soon joined ranks with the world's greatest symphonic ensembles.

In other respects, however, Severance Hall began to show its age by the 1970s. As the Orchestra grew, the backstage and administrative spaces were increasingly cramped and inadequate. Services for patrons could not be expanded beyond basic requirements. The original drive-through entrance for automobiles was converted to a pre-concert restaurant, but menu offerings were restricted by limited on-site cooking facilities. And Severance Hall’s ornate and magnificent details had faded over the years until, in 1998, Bernard Holland of the New York Times described Severance Hall as “agreeably shabby.”

Restoration and Expansion

Even as Severance Hall declined with age, The Cleveland Orchestra remained among the world's top ensembles artistically. The 1982 appointment of Christoph von Dohnányi as music director brought renewed vigor and accolades, as well as renewed recording activity and increased touring. Thomas W. Morris’s appointment in 1987 as executive director created a similar renewal offstage, supported by the organization's governing Board of Trustees, led by Ward Smith (president from 1983-95). Economically, the city of Cleveland saw new and sustained growth and revitalization from the mid-1980s onward.

In 1994, a taskforce of Orchestra trustees and community leaders, chaired by Alex Machaskee, was formed to review Severance Hall's current state and to propose a vision for its future as a renewed home for The Cleveland Orchestra and as an expanded cultural center for Cleveland.

A primary impetus for a significant renovation project was the decision to restore and relocate Severance Hall's original 6,025-pipe, 94-rank E.M. Skinner organ, as urged by Music Director Christoph von Dohnányi. The original installation of the organ had placed it in a large catwalk area high above the stage, but the resulting sound was thought to be somewhat distant and less than ideal. George Szell's 1958 acoustical stage shell, while vastly improving the overall sound of the hall, effectively entombed the organ and it had gone unused since 1976.

In 1997, the Board of Trustees endorsed plans for a large-scale renovation and expansion of Severance Hall that would add much more space to the hall, while carefully preserving the historical integrity of the original Walker & Weeks design. A total of $36.7 million was committed to the Severance Hall Renovation Project, including $2 million for relocation and restoration of the organ. David M. Schwarz Architectural Services of Washington D.C. led the design and GSI Architects Inc. of Cleveland served as architects-of-record for the project, which included a five-story addition to the back of the building, along with restoration and renovation work throughout the existing public spaces.

The renovation, expansion, and restoration of Severance Hall were funded in part through the Campaign for The Cleveland Orchestra, with which the Musical Arts Association raised $116 million for Cleveland Orchestra operations, endowment, and capital improvements.

The restoration architects were charged with executing a faithful restoration of Severance Hall’s historically and architecturally important spaces, including the 2,000-seat Concert Hall, the 400-seat Reinberger Chamber Hall, and the Grand Foyer. However, they were also asked to construct a new concert stage that would complement the auditorium's original architecture while retaining and enhancing Severance Hall's acoustical properties, make the hall more accessible to patrons, add amenities such as a full-service restaurant and a gift shop, improve accommodations for musicians and artists, expand backstage facilities, and add new lighting and technical support systems to facilitate broadcast and recording. Additionally, the new stage had to accommodate the historic Skinner organ.

The organ’s pipes and machinery were removed from the building during the summer of 1997 and painstakingly refurbished by the Schantz Organ Company in Orrville, Ohio. The organ was reinstalled and tuned during the summer of 2000, and the restored organ made its debut with The Cleveland Orchestra in January 2001.

Grand Reopening in 2000 

Severance Hall itself reopened on January 8, 2000, as a long-beloved concert hall returned to the service of its world-class resident orchestra. Allan Kozinn wrote in the New York Times that “the renovated concert hall sounds as seductive as it looks.” And Janelle Gelfand of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that "Severance Hall is now the most visually stunning setting for an orchestra this side of Vienna’s Musikverein. Even better, its pristine acoustics — the quality responsible for ‘the Cleveland sound’ — have been preserved and even enhanced."

Severance Hall Facts and Timeline

Owned by
Musical Arts Association, Cleveland, Ohio

Original Architect
Walker & Weeks, Cleveland, Ohio

Architectural Styles
Exterior: Georgian, Neoclassical
Grand Foyer: Egyptian Revival
Concert Hall: Art Deco, French Nouveau, Moderne
Reinberger Chamber Hall: Neoclassical

Seating Capacity (as of December 2012)
Concert Hall: 1,920
Reinberger Chamber Hall: 402

Original Cost
$7 million

November 1929

Inaugural Concert
February 5, 1931

1958 Acoustic Renovation
Date: Summer 1958
Acoustic Consultant: Heinrich Keilholz
Major project components:
• Construction of acoustical shell.
• Removal of original proscenium, drapes and carpeting in Concert Hall.

1998-2000 Renovation/Expansion
Design Architect: David M. Schwarz/Architectural Services, Washington D.C.
Architects-of-Record: GSI Architects, Cleveland, Ohio
Acoustician: Jaffe Holden Scarbrough, Norwalk, Connecticut
Organ Consultant: Schoenstein & Company, San Francisco, California
Organ Builder: Schantz Organ Company, Orrville, Ohio
Landscape Architect: Behnke Associates, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio
Major project components:
• Comprehensive restoration of the Concert Hall, Reinberger Chamber Hall, Grand Foyer, and all public spaces.
• Accessibility upgrades, including additional accessible restrooms and seating.
• Construction of a five-story addition (39,000 square feet) at the rear of the building.
• New stage with the restored Skinner organ installed at the back of the stage.
• Expanded facilities and catering services for private dinners, meetings, and rentals.
• Full-service Severance Restaurant open to the public on concert afternoons and evenings.
• Retail store featuring Cleveland Orchestra CDs and musically-related gift items, open weekly and during concerts.
• Doubling of the number of public restrooms, including a 150% increase in women's restrooms.

Renovation/Expansion Timeline
July 1997: E. M. Skinner pipe organ removed for restoration
December 1997: Limestone removed from exterior rear of building to prepare for new addition.
March 24, 1998: Groundbreaking ceremony marks start of construction of new addition.
December 21, 1998: Topping Out ceremony marks completion of steel erection for new addition.
March 1999: Cleveland Orchestra moves out of Severance Hall to begin nine-month residency at Playhouse Square's Allen Theatre.
March-December 1999: Construction of new stage shell, restoration of auditorium and other architecturally important spaces.
June 2, 1999: Cornerstone Ceremony marks the installation of the new addition's stone façade.
January 8, 2000: Severance Hall re-opens with gala concert.
June-December 2000: Re-installation of organ
January 2001: Inauguration of restored Norton Memorial Organ.

1997-2000 Renovation/Expansion Cost
$36 million

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