In 1875, the second Cincinnati Musical Festival was underway in Exposition Hall. The hall was a large structure used for industrial and business expositions, and it was in disrepair.

During the third part of the evening's performance, which was composed of extracts from ''Lohengrin,'' a thunderstorm pelted the city. The sound of the rain on the structure's tin roof was so noisy that Music Director Theodore Thomas had to stop the performance!

Cincinnati businessman Reuben R. Springer grew impatient as he waited for the musical festival to resume. ''We need a new building,'' he thought to himself.

Cincinnati has a classical chorus, a first-rate orchestra and a budding reputation as one of the arts capitals of the world. It is only fitting we also have a musical hall.

His thoughts became a plan, and Cincinnati Music Hall was built.

Cincinnati Music Hall, an elegant century-old building, stands majestically at the corner of 14th and Elm - just a short walk from the city's center.

 

Three Buildings or One?

Originally Music Hall was designed for unique and dual purposes - to house musical activities in a center area and industrial exhibitions in its side wings.

Mr. Springer donated one-hundred twenty-five thousand dollars toward the construction of Music Hall, on the condition that citizens raise an equal amount - a one-to-one match. The central portion was built in one year and dedicated at the time of the fourth May Festival in 1878.

As the central portion was being planned and the decrepit Exposition Hall torn down, business and manufacturing interests protested, arguing that they no longer would have a place for their popular exhibitions.

Reuben Springer was a businessman himself and he understood their objections. He initiated another challenge: if one hundred thousand dollars could be raised for construction of the wings, he would write a check for 50 thousand dollars.

Again the citizens of Cincinnati rose to the challenge.

The north and south wings were added in 1879 and opened in the fall of that year.

Read more about the layout of Music Hall.

 

The Architect

After a review of the competing designs from outstanding architectural companies - both local and national - the firm of Hannaford and Procter was chosen.

Samuel Hannaford was the head of the most prolific and probably most successful architectural firm in Cincinnati, from before the Civil War until he retired in 1900. The Hannaford architectural dynasty continued under the leadership of his son and others until the 1960s.

 

The Architecture

Hannaford designed the structure in the style of High Victorian Gothic Revival. The architectural style is seen in various design elements in the structure.

The façade of the structure includes sandstone designs that speak to the purpose of each of the three sections:

  • music symbols, such as the French horn and Lyre, adorn the central portion
  • gears and hammers are prominent on the north hall, which was known as Machinery Hall
  • flowers and foliage adorn the south wing, or Horticultural Hall
  • and the initials CIE (Cincinnati Industrial Exposition) are prominent on both the north and south wings

Between the main hall and each wing was a passageway where carriages could pass from Elm Street to Plum Street, and wealthier patrons could enter the hall protected from the elements.

The length of the building on Elm Street is 372 feet; the depth from front to rear is 293 feet and the highest point is the pinnacle of the front gable 150 feet above the sidewalk. It covers an area of 2-1/2 acres.

Inside Cincinnati Music Hall

The Foyer is where patrons have always promenaded during intermissions of various events. Both levels of the foyer also serve as a gallery honoring contributors, individuals and significant events in the life of Music Hall.

Music Hall is best known for its central portion: the elegant and acoustically-acclaimed Springer Auditorium where Cincinnati's Symphony Orchestra, May Festival, Opera, and Ballet companies and other productions hold performances.

Originally, the auditorium had far less rake and seated nearly 6,000 people, including orchestra and chorus on stage. Over the years, the auditorium's size has been reduced, both to extend the stage and to accommodate more comfortable seats and improve accessibility.

In the domed center of the ceiling of the auditorium, an oil painting by Arthur Thomas depicts an ''Allegory of the Arts.'' This was added in 1905.

Suspended from the center of the dome is a dramatic chandelier of brass and thousands of hand-cut crystals, seemingly light and airy but actually weighing 1,500 pounds. This and the three smaller chandeliers in the foyer were part of the 1969 renovation. Then, in 2017, the foyer chandeliers were moved to Corbett Tower.

When first built, Music Hall's "stage" was a platform that held the singers and orchestra. Visiting opera and theatre troupes needed to create their own proscenium, curtain and wings.

Seeing an opportunity to draw additional performances, the Music Hall Association added a proscenium and thrust stage in 1895.

While the proscenium remains, renovations over the years have improved the stage area, added an orchestra pit and brought the stage more into the audience area.

Now Music Hall possesses one of the largest and best-equipped stages in the world. A 90-ton steel grid framework is used to suspend scenery and lighting. It rests on the original foundations of the 1844 Orphan Asylum, one of the early occupants of the site.

Above the Foyer is a charming reception room. When Music Hall was built, this area of the structure was known as Dexter Hall, named for Julius Dexter, a civic leader and chair of the Music Hall building committee.

It is now Corbett Tower, named for long-time arts and Music Hall patrons and philanthropists J. Ralph and Patricia Corbett.

Corbett Tower was recently refurbished. A drop ceiling added in the 1960s to accommodate air conditioning was removed, and the room gained an extra 17 feet of height. In addition, this action exposed a cove ceiling and elegant stenciling, which has been faithfully reproduced.

The North Hall

When built, this wing was known as Mechanical Hall. The large building featured two levels to accommodate the machinery shown in expositions. In the 1920s, when the popularity of expositions waned, the north wing was renovated and a six-thousand-seat sports arena was installed. In the early 70s, as sporting events moved to other venues, the wing was refurbished to accommodate set construction, painting and storage.

The north wing now contains:

  • the Corbett Opera Center, which includes administrative and production offices, a rehearsal room, reception area and box office for the Cincinnati Opera
  • offices for the Cincinnati Arts Association, which manages Music Hall, and the office for the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall
  • a scenery storage area
  • carpenter shop
  • two rehearsal halls.

The South Hall

The southern portion of this 3-building structure was known as Horticulture Hall. When it was built, this wing featured two levels with a glass roof and accommodated exhibits ranging from plants and landscape displays to art exhibits.

The 1927 renovation provided a full roof for south hall, and the second floor became a ballroom - a popular spot for bands and dancing.

Today, the ballroom remains, and also features the restored Albee Mighty Wurlitzer Organ. The first floor holds the offices of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Pops, and May Festival.

Reuben R. Springer

Reuben R. Springer

Hannaford's architectural drawing of Cincinnati Music Hall

Hannaford's architectural drawing of Cincinnati Music Hall

Portrait of Architect Samuel Hannaford

Portrait of Architect Samuel Hannaford

Examples of Sandstone Designs

Examples of Sandstone Designs

Cincinnati Music Hall 1878

Cincinnati Music Hall 1878

Foyer - almost ready for the opening

Foyer - almost ready for the opening

Springer Auditorium, before renovation

Springer Auditorium, before renovation

Corbett Tower, before renovation

Corbett Tower, before renovation

Tennis match, North Hall Sports Arena

Tennis match, North Hall Sports Arena

Horticulture Hall, south wing

Horticulture Hall, south wing