Not a Bad Seat in the House:
A Design History of Cincinnati's Emery Theatre
Robert Howes


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."

In 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 in 1900.


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.

The 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 Hall's ellipse.


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 design.


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 Theatre epitomizes.

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