Everyone knows that Music Hall was built for choral singing, right? Well... that's mostly correct.
The center hall was built to accommodate choral singing, and also to hold expositions when used with the north and south halls, which were expressly built for industrial expositions.
In fact Reuben R. Springer, the man credited with the idea of a "musical hall," had stated as much in a letter that kicked off the enterprise:
The Musical Hall building to be located in the center of the lot, and so planned and constructed as to be capable of being used for exposition purposes in connection with suitable buildings that may be constructed on the north and south to the limits of the lot.
As a successful businessman, Mr. Springer knew that expositions were big business. Not only did they give manufacturers and retailers a way to show off goods and services, they were a form of entertainment—people would come from miles around to spend the day, or more, at an exposition.
A Business Brouhaha
But the mere public announcement of the construction of a new Music Hall, to be erected where the old exposition building was standing, created quite both excitement and controversy in the city.
Jealousies arose between those who favored the popular music festivals and those who felt the future of the city was best served by more and greater exposition space.
The newspapers, of course, had a field day! Letters appeared in the papers, each more bitter and caustic than the next. In one, a citizen wrote that "We are a mechanical people, not a race of fiddlers."
It looked for a while that the internal strife would seriously harm the city.
Mr. Springer stepped in, acknowledged the beliefs and feelings of both groups, and offered $50,000 towards the construction of buildings around Music Hall for industrial expositions, provided $100,000 more were donated by other citizens. This was the same "deal" he had made to stimulate the construction of Music Hall.
The First Exposition in Cincinnati - and the Nation
1838. May 30, to be exact. That was the date the first annual Fair of the Ohio Mechanics Institute was staged in Cincinnati. Actually, that was the first exposition ever held in the United States - in the nation's first permanent exhibition hall.
The Ohio Mechanics Institute was founded in 1828 to provide education and training for mechanics, a skilled-labor term that, at the time, encompassed blacksmiths, bricklayers, carpenters and others.
OMI's 1838 "Exhibit of Arts and Manufactures" drew citizens from far and wide to look at industrial products. Maria Curro Kreppel, Professor Emerita of English and Communication, U.C.'s College of Applied Science, studied the history of OMI and says these fairs were started because "the OMI directors were looking for ways to get more public attention to math and science and industrial topics."
The Grand Expositions
Eighteen of the fairs were held before the Civil War. Then, after the war, OMI joined with the Chamber of Commerce and the new Board of Trade to hold expositions to try to jumpstart an economy that was hard hit by the war.
In 1870, they held the first of the Grand Industrial Expositions at Sængerfest Halle, at 14th and Elm.
In an interview for the documentary Music Hall: Cincinnati Finds Its Voice, Kreppel described the expositions:
They certainly wanted to show arts and manufacturers and those two terms meant something very different then than they do to us today. We're talking about all of the manufactured arts. Halls full of paintings. Halls full of horticultural specimens. Halls full of architectural art.
And they were also talking about halls full of machine tools, early machine tools, lots of steam engines. And all sorts of new pieces of equipment. This was the time of great growth in the American patent office and the spirit of invention was everywhere. And that was quite at the center of the Grand Expositions.
The Grand Expositions lasted 30 days and drew tens of thousands of people from the entire Midwest region.
By 1872's Exposition, 500,000 people attended. Dr. Kreppel describes the scene:
Can you picture these folks slogging down the canal? No buses. No public transportation to speak of. It must have been pretty messy just getting there. But they came to see seven acres of machinery in motion and they left $100,000 plus in the city coffers.
So by 1875, when discussions began about building Music Hall, the OMI directors were looking for a permanent building in which to hold these expositions.
Despite the initial controversy, Reuben Springer was able to bring together the interests of the city fathers, the mechanics and others to get the north and south wings built in time for the 1879 Industrial Exhibition.
Still, because of the size of the Grand Expositions, Music Hall wasn't the only structure, but it was the centerpiece.
The Great Centennial Exposition of 1888
The last of the Great Centennial Expositions, from July 4 until November 8, was intended to showcase the entire region and celebrate the centennial of the Ohio Valley. It was called the "Centennial" Exposition because Cincinnati was founded in 1788.
The Exposition covered fifteen acres and was to have featured over 1,000 different exhibits. Visitors were treated to:
- industrial inventions of all kinds
- an art gallery
- floral displays
In addition to exhibits, there was a variety of entertainment ranging from performances—organ, orchestral, recitals, and dramas—to parades and fireworks.
The newest phenomenon was electrical lighting and exhibits everywhere featured electrical lighting displays. Says Kreppel:
Among the wonders, for example, in one of the horticultural areas, you could see the beautiful flower displays interspersed with flowers made of electric light bulbs that were variously turned off and on.
Thomas Edison's company created an amazing display of one huge incandescent bulb, 30 feet high, using 150,000 light bulbs to create it. This provided a new opportunity for visitors, too, because, with electrical lights, they could view the grand outdoor exhibits at night.
Above all, however, outside connecting the cruciform building in Washington Park, the Music Hall complex and this three block long Machinery Hall built over the canal where all the machine tools were located, connecting all of that was outdoor electric lighting for the first time ever at one of these exhibits.
The next exposition held at Music Hall was in 1928 to commemorate Music Hall's Golden Jubilee.
The Greater Cincinnati Industrial Exposition was held October 3-14, 1928. There were many exhibits throughout the structure, including Art, Musical, Photographic and Stamp Exhibits, as well as a military display and exhibits by the Ohio Mechanics' Institute. The Expo also featured entertainment and performances, and what was billed as "the greatest historical Cincinnati exhibit ever viewed."
Others featured Rookwood Pottery and Antique Furniture. There was also a Firemen's Exhibit, Mound Builders' Exhibit, Military and Public Library Exhibits.
Conventions and Exhibitions Throughout the Years
In addition to the expositions, Music Hall served as the city's convention and exhibition center. One notable event was the Democratic national convention in 1880.
The Automobile Club of Cincinnati held its first automobile show at Music Hall in 1910. ''Motor cars'' were often sold on the spot to buyers who traveled hundreds of miles to attend the program. Manufacturers used the auto expos to introduce new models to consumers.
Major renovations were made to Music Hall in 1927. The North Wing, which had been known as "Industrial" or "Power" hall, was converted into an arena for sporting events. The South Hall continued to be used for a variety of exhibitions, often in conjunction with the lobby and auditorium. The biggest shows expanded into the north hall.
Annual expos included the "Home Beautiful" show, started in 1925 by the Cincinnati Real Estate Board. A new feature was added in 1929: construction of a model home inside the Music Hall's wing.