a Bad Seat in the House:
A Design History of Cincinnati's Emery Theatre
Excerpted by the author with permission from
Queen City Heritage, the Journal of the Cincinnati Historical
Society, originally published in the Fall issue 1988, Volume
46, Number 3, pages 51-61. Excerpt printed by Emery Center
Corporation. 100 East Central Parkway, Cincinnati, Ohio
45210 in 1992.
The Emery Theatre, or Auditorium as it was originally known,
was the third in a series of four theatre-style concert
halls whose design was derived from Adler and Sullivan's
Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, and that were specifically
built for the symphony orchestras of their respective cities.
The four halls were Carnegie Hall in New York City (1892),
Orchestra Hall in Chicago (1904), Emery Auditorium in Cincinnati
(1911), and Orchestra Hall in Detroit (1919). Unlike its
three sister halls, the Emery Theatre is not freestanding,
but is part of a school building. The school was the Ohio
Mechanics Institute (OMI), later known as the Ohio College
of Applied science.
By the early 1900's, the OMI's need for a new and larger
building was imperative. The OMI Board of Directors investigated
this need as early as 1903, and a "Special Committee
on New Quarters" was formed in June 1904. One of its
members was Harvey E. Hannaford, Treasurer of the OMI Board,
elder son of Samuel Hannaford, and managing director of
Samuel Hannaford and Sons, Architects.
In September 1905, the "new Quarters" committee
officially recommended that the property on the northeast
corner of Walnut and Canal streets (now Central Parkway)
be purchased. Actually, prospects for the purchase of land
just north of the old canal were so well along by that spring,
Hannaford was authorized to prepare plans for the new building.
OMI Superintendent John L. Shearer might have seen preliminary
plans as early as June 1905, but the OMI board probably
saw the plans for the first time in January 1906. These
plans were first made public in a promotional brochure which
appeared in the spring of 1906.
The 1906 brochure shows a four-story building closely resembling
the old Woodward High School on Sycamore Street, now the
School for the Creative and Performing Arts. Although its
auditorium was intended from the beginning to be available
to the public, the small stage, limited backstage facilities,
and seating capacity of 1,280 precluded its use by any large
scale theatrical or concert productions. Without outside
influence the OMI's concept of a public auditorium might
not have departed from the simple requirements of a school
assembly hall. However, outside influence was soon felt,
in the form of Mrs. Mary M. Emery's philanthropy, and in
Cincinnati's desire to build a special home for its orchestra.
On July 20, 1907, Mrs. Emery made a substantial offer:
... I hereby offer to furnish the sum of One Hundred
Thousand Dollars...for the erection of that part of your
proposed new buildings [sic] to be known as the "Shop
Building" on condition that by the 1st day of April
A. D. 1908 you procure subscriptions for the sum of Four
Hundred Thousand Dollars...If you succeed within the time
named...I will further agree on the completion of your building...
to endow your institution with the sum of Fifty Thousand
Dollars...The "Shop Building"... I would desire
to be considered as a gift in memory of Thomas J. Emery,
the building to be known as "The Thomas J. Emery Building."
July 1908, Shearer induced Mrs. Emery to take on the entire
cost of the project and make the whole building a memorial
to her husband. Mrs. Emery's second offer, dated October
10, 1908, enumerated special purposes for the auditorium
of the new OMI building. Besides being "primarily for
the use of your school," she wished that the auditorium
be "so constructed as to be serviceable for public
and private lectures, entertainments, symphony and other
concerts, May Festival rehearsals, and for such other entertainment
as in the judgement of the Trustees of your institution
may be proper" She avoided mention of the Cincinnati
Symphony, which she hoped would be the new hall's main tenant.
Founded in 1895, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra played
its first two seasons in the Pike Opera House on Fourth
Street. The success of those concerts underscored a need
Cincinnati had been feeling for a number of years, the adaptation
of Music Hall into a more theatre-like facility. When first
built in 1878, Music Hall was simply a long, high-ceilinged
room with a platform, choir stalls, and pipe organ at one
end, a three-sided gallery, a second gallery at the end
opposite the platform, and large windows on both sides.
This was an eminently logical design for the May Festival
performances and for conventions, exhibitions, and banquets.
However, by the early 1890's Cincinnati wanted to produce
opera, which requires elaborate stage facilities and an
orchestra pit. She also wanted her own symphony orchestra,
but orchestral sound would have been depleted by the immense
volume of the original Music Hall. So, in 1895 Samuel Hannaford,
Music Hall's architect, was hired to adapt the hall to Cincinnati's
diversifying musical needs.
Hannaford's primary task was to shorten Music Hall's length
to bring the entire audience visually and aurally closer
to the performers. He designed a permanent stage and proscenium
well forward of the original platform. As necessary as this
was, it made Music Hall a bit too wide for its length, and
the resulting acoustical problems exist to this day. Orchestral
sound in Music Hall tends to spread laterally, causing it
to "thin out" in the middle frequencies. Sound
heard from the extreme sides of both stage and house contains
an appreciable amount of indirect or reverberative sound.
This makes precision ensemble playing more difficult for
the orchestra, and the audience on the sides of the main
floor is prone to hear an even thinner, lopsided orchestral
sound which can be plagued with echoes.
These acoustical problems would also exist in the center
of the hall had not Hannaford designed an elliptical crest
over the proscenium. At first glance, this crest appears
to be decorative. However, it serves an important acoustical
function. The crest reflects sound from the apron of the
stage, customarily occupied by the string sections of an
orchestra, to the center portion of the first balcony, and
the main floor directly in front of the balcony, giving
sound from the stage a fullness and presence it otherwise
would not have.
Hannaford knew what he was doing when he designed Music
Hall's elliptical crest. By 1895 the use of elliptical ceiling
configurations for acoustical purposes was established by
Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Theatre, built
in Chicago in 1889, and William B. Tuthill's Carnegie Hall
in New York City, for which Adler served as consultant.
Adler used the principle of the "isacoustic curve"
first described by John Scott Russell in 1836 not only to
calculate the best placement of the Auditorium's main floor
and its three balconies, but also to design a series of
terraced ellipses which form the ceiling in the front part
of the hall. These ellipses helped direct sound evenly throughout
the hall. They serve the added function of lessening the
over-all volume so sound in this large hall is not boomy
or cavernous but still resonant, especially for the audience
in the second and third balconies. The Auditorium Theatre
was the paradigm for the theatre-style concert hall in the
United States for about thirty years. Its influence was
strongest in Cincinnati. Adler's design helped Harvey Hannaford
with the design problems of the Emery Auditorium.
For the Cincinnati symphony in remodeled Music Hall, economic
problems were of great importance. The orchestra's finances
were precarious for its first twelve seasons. It almost
ceased operations in 1901. Deficits were routinely covered
at the end of each season by wealthy patrons, but this was
a makeshift way of operating. The symphony needed to develop
a more secure and organized source of revenue at the beginning
of each season. Season ticket sales rarely exceeded $2,600,
and most of those were for cheaper seats. Also, the symphony
never filled Music Hall to capacity. For its first six seasons
the symphony relied on the considerable prestige of its
music director, Frank Van der Stucken, to generate revenue.
This strategy began changing after Mrs. Christian R. Holmes
was elected President of the Symphony Association Board
As early as 1903 Mrs. Holmes started agitating for a home
for the Cincinnati symphony, and by the symphony's two-season
interregnum, 1907-1909, Cincinnati's need for a smaller
concert hall was firmly established. A Cincinnati Times-Star
article of April 8, 1907, stated that "...a need of
a hall for concert purposes, seating about 2,500 in no way
impairs the usefulness of Music Hall, which is daily required
for large gatherings and for the May festivals ... and it
is trusted that some public-spirited man may arise and offer
a solution of the problem."
A new concert hall was not all Cincinnati needed to get
its orchestra operating again. The Symphony Association
needed a $50,000 guarantee fund and a new conductor, both
of which were still wanting in the fall of 1908. This is
why Mrs. Emery did not specifically mention the Cincinnati
symphony in her bequest. However, a day or two after the
OMI accepted her bequest, she offered the "Emery Auditorium"
to the Cincinnati symphony.
Leopold Stokowski Mrs. Emery told the Symphony Association
that the new hall would have about 1,500 seats. The Association
decided that was "too small" and should be increased
by 500. Within a month Charles Livingood, Mrs. Emery's secretary,
informed the Association that the capacity of the hall would
be increased as much as possible"
The CSO's new conductor was the virtually unknown twenty-seven-year-old
Leopold Stokowski. Besides Stokowski's marginal experience
in symphonic conducting, he had no formal training in acoustics,
but his intuitive genius for orchestras included a similar
genius for concert halls. We will probably never know when
or how Stokowski first learned of the Emery Auditorium,
but we can reasonably assume he knew of it by January 1910,
and that he was not entirely pleased with the hall's design.
However, he was not the only one who was worried for Mrs.
Emery and the Symphony Association were again concerned
about the hall's seating capacity.
great public interest in a new orchestra in a forthcoming
new hall under a young and glamorous new conductor generated
the purchase of 2,500 season tickets and over-all ticket
revenues of almost $25,000. By the end of 1909, Mrs. Holmes
and the Symphony Association were regretting they acquiesced
to the 1,800 seating capacity and wished they had held out
for more. Moving the orchestra into an 1,800 seat hall looked
more and more like economic suicide. By the end of 1909
the footings for the auditorium were poured and the concrete
and steel frame for the building was being put up. Something
had to be done, and fast.
In early January 1910, Harvey Hannaford was informed, probably
through Mr. Livingood, that the Symphony Association desired
a larger seating capacity. Hannaford had no choice but to
add a second balcony.
At a special meeting of the OMI board on February 14, Shearer
asked Mr. Hannaford to present "the whole proposition
from his standpoint" After a "very full discussion...
in which every member took part," the board drew up
the following preamble and resolution.
Whereas, the Board of Directors of the Ohio Mechanics
Institute... having fully discussed the question of the
seating capacity of the Emery Auditorium, and Whereas, it
is the opinion of every member of the Board that a seating
capacity of 1800 as originally designed was entirely satisfactory
and sufficiently large for all practical purposes of the
Institute, and for all other purposes, and further believing
that a hall of 1800 seating capacity could be maintained
at a minimum expense and yield a maximum revenue, but Whereas
Mrs. Emery has made an earnest request for a hall having
a minimum of 2200 seating capacity and has agreed to bear
the entire cost of any changes involved, it is moved by
Mr. Hobart and seconded by Mr. Hannaford as follows: Having
a full appreciation of the generosity which prompted the
gift of Mrs. Emery of $500,000 for the erection of the new
Ohio Mechanics Institute, and desiring that when completed
the building shall fully meet her idea of what it should
be, it is the sense of the Board of Directors that this
seating capacity be increased to a minimum of 2200, in accordance
with Mrs. Emery s expressed wish...
The OMI Board was obviously upset that the design of their
hall was no longer in its control. In stating that the 1,800
seating capacity was sufficient for the Institute "and
for all other purposes," they, in effect, dismissed
the demands of the Symphony Association. But that dismissal
was only for their private satisfaction. The resolution
itself was more diplomatic. It distilled an increasingly
fractious situation into a formula which everyone could
accept and allowed the project to proceed. Mrs. Emery no
doubt understood the position she was putting the OMI in,
and she accepted the responsibility.
The contributions of Mrs. Emery and the Symphony Association
committee to the final design helped to make the Emery the
first concert hall in the United States to have no obstructed
seats. Also, the relationship of seating capacity and comfort
with building expense was very favorable. When we consider
that the entire building complex ended up costing about
$630,000, the Emery was a bargain. However, Mr. Hannaford
still had Leopold Stokowski to contend with.
At the March 8 Symphony Association meeting the minutes
state: "... Mr. Stokowski found upon investigation
that the stage would not be large enough for the orchestra
and the Proscenium Arch would be far too low for good effect—it
was decided that it was absolutely necessary to have a 54
foot stage and a much higher arch. Mr. Livingood felt that
both...would be impossible but finally agreed to have Mr.
Stokowski confer with the architect and report later upon
the subject, all work on the hall to await his decision"
The final 1911 Emery Auditorium design is derived from the
1909 design. Hannaford made the ellipse shallower, shifted
the three coffered ceiling segments toward the stage, and
added in the back of the hall a smooth ceiling which is
rounded in the front. The ellipse was now the same as Music
The two massive balconies are the most wonderful structural
aspects of the 1911 design. Viewed from the stage, the balconies
appear to be strung effortlessly between the walls of the
hall. Their "secret" lies in two I-beams of structural
steel, one for each balcony, over eighty-nine feet long
and weighing thirty-three tons each, running the width of
the hall. The balconies rest largely on these beams. The
beam for the second balcony is tied directly into the back
pair of the hall's four main support columns. The anchorage
for the lower balcony's beam is less obvious. It appears
to float above the main floor because it enters the walls
immediately above two sets of exit doors. Actually, it is
riveted at both ends into plate girders which span the doors
like lintels, and in turn are attached to the support columns.
These plate girders are completely covered over by masonry.
An intricate system of cantilever trusses extend out from
these I-beams to form the front part of the balconies. This
method of balcony construction was relatively new in 1910,
and had, to the author's knowledge, never been used in a
concert hall in the United States prior to the Emery Auditorium.
Its use in two balconies adds further precedent to the Emery's
The Emery was originally painted in various shades of fawns
and creams, and the raised plaster work was rendered in
antique gold. A photograph of the interior from about 1925
shows how these various shadings enhanced the rather spartan
interior. The plaster work was much simpler compared to
the 1909 design, probably for economic reasons. However,
the simpler decoration was more congruent with the functional
nature of the school's design.
In regard to the all important matter of acoustics, Stokowski
commented on the hall's excellent combination of clarity
and blend, and the effective increase in the orchestra's
power. Individual instrumental colors could now be heard
with greater resolution because of the greater logistical
intimacy between audience and orchestra, and because the
hall's shape and dimensions created a less diffuse sound,
while at the same time creating resonance which blended
the clearer, more powerful sound into a well balanced whole.
Unfortunately, the Cincinnati symphony made no commercial
recordings in the Emery, and no radio broadcast transcription
disks are known to exist from the period the orchestra performed
there. Therefore, we have no record of the symphony's sound
in the Emery. After the CSO's return to Music Hall in 1936,
symphony concerts were no longer heard in the Emery. The
Emery's sound became a legend, especially among musicians.
The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra's performances in the Emery
in the late 1970's verified the legend to some extent, but
memories of a symphony orchestra's sound in the hall were
fast slipping into the dim reaches of history. In an effort
to rekindle the Emery's legendary symphonic sound, the Emery
Theatre Restoration Association sponsored an orchestra concert
given in the Emery on September 27, 1987. The sound had
a "shining" clarity along with full resonance
that was evident even at the softest sound levels. Hopefully,
this sound will be the acoustical standard during the Emery
Auditorium's probable renovation.
The history of the theatre-style concert hall in the United
States did not stop with the Emery. Evidence, which at present
is only circumstantial, indicates that the Emery influenced
the design of Detroit's Orchestra Hall, considered by musicians
and audiophiles to be the finest theatre-style concert hall
in the world. Saved from destruction in 1970, Orchestra
Hall in Detroit once again is setting the highest standard
for orchestral sound. Severance Hall in Cleveland was the
next theatre-style hall built expressly for a symphony orchestra
in the United States. Built in 1930, Severance's design
was based on acoustical concepts which emphasized clarity
at the expense of resonance. Even though subsequent renovation
has improved Severance's resonance, the "unresonant"
approach to concert hall design has been the dominant philosophy
ever since, and orchestral sound has suffered as a consequence.
Severance Hall marked the end of a highly successful era
in concert hall design. A rebirth of the Emery hopefully
will also be a rebirth of the acoustical concepts the Emery
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