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 Detroit Historical Museum Senior Curator Joel Stone created these small busts of Detroit Symphony Orchestra music directors over the years.

Detroit Historical Museum Senior Curator Joel Stone created these small busts of Detroit Symphony Orchestra music directors over the years.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran


Exhibition spotlights the highs and lows of Orchestra Hall’s history

By: Brendan Losinski | C&G Newspapers | Published February 14, 2020

 Visitors to the Detroit Historical Museum exhibition, “100 Years of Music, Magic and Community,” will be able to take photos of themselves “conducting” the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in front of an audience.

Visitors to the Detroit Historical Museum exhibition, “100 Years of Music, Magic and Community,” will be able to take photos of themselves “conducting” the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in front of an audience.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

 A mold of the hand of famed Detroit Symphony Orchestra Music Director Ossip Gabrilowitsch — on loan from the Detroit Public Library — is on display as part of the Orchestra Hall exhibition.

A mold of the hand of famed Detroit Symphony Orchestra Music Director Ossip Gabrilowitsch — on loan from the Detroit Public Library — is on display as part of the Orchestra Hall exhibition.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

 For part of its history, Orchestra Hall was the Paradise Theatre, a jazz venue that hosted many legendary artists.

For part of its history, Orchestra Hall was the Paradise Theatre, a jazz venue that hosted many legendary artists.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

DETROIT — It’s renowned for its remarkable acoustics and as the home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, but Orchestra Hall very nearly met with the wrecking ball in the 1970s.

The glorious venue is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and its complicated, storied history is told in a new exhibition at the Robert and Mary Ann Bury Community Gallery at the Detroit Historical Museum. On view through April 26, the exhibition, “100 Years of Music, Magic and Community,” features historical photos, artifacts and anecdotes about a venue so many people have visited.

Orchestra Hall was built in 1919 because DSO Music Director Ossip Gabrilowitsch — who started conducting the DSO in 1918 — said he would only return if they constructed “a concert hall worthy of this orchestra,” explained Matt Carlson, senior director of communications and media for the DSO.

Orchestra Hall cost $1 million to build. Gabrilowitsch led the orchestra in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,200 on opening night Oct. 23, 1919. But those early glory days wouldn’t last — the Great Depression led the DSO to default on the bonds to finance Orchestra Hall, and the musicians briefly moved into the 4,600-seat Masonic Temple Auditorium in 1939.

In subsequent years, the DSO would go out of business, mount a comeback, disband and finally re-form, but it would be decades before they returned to Orchestra Hall.

The venue still hosts jazz concerts, which is only fitting, given that Orchestra Hall was renamed the Paradise Theatre and featured jazz legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong and Count Basie between 1939 and 1951.

Even DSO officials got some surprises about Orchestra Hall’s history.

“For five years in the 1950s, it was a church,” Carlson said. “They were known for (having a) huge gospel choir (of 250 to 500 singers). That was a big part of our history that we didn’t know.”

Church of Our Prayer, led by the Rev. James Lofton, held services at Orchestra Hall from 1952 to 1957.

“I think what’s fantastic is, (Orchestra Hall) has been loved by so many different communities over the years,” Carlson said. “It’s not just a story of the DSO, because the DSO has only been in its home for 50 of (Orchestra Hall’s) years.”

Although it’s in use almost all the time now, Orchestra Hall was vacant for years, which took a toll on the structure and nearly led to its demolition. Paul Ganson, the DSO bassoonist from 1969 to 2004, founded the group Save Orchestra Hall upon learning that Orchestra Hall was only about three weeks away from being bulldozed for a now-defunct burger chain — Gino’s Hamburgers — in the 1970s.

“I knew about the Save Orchestra Hall movement, but I didn’t realize how close it came to being torn down,” said Jeremy Dimick, director of collections for the Detroit Historical Museum. “It was an incredible grassroots effort.”

The badly dilapidated building — designed by C. Howard Crane, whose other famous buildings including the Fox Theatre and the Fillmore Detroit — would take 19 years and $17 million to restore.

Most of the exhibition artifacts are from the DSO’s archives, but an imagined coatroom contains 1919-era hats and coats from the Detroit Historical Museum’s collection to give visitors a sense of what people would have been wearing to the opening night concert.

“The biggest part of our collection is the textiles,” said Sarah Murphy, marketing and public relations manager for the Detroit Historical Museum.

Dimick said they have roughly 20,000 articles of clothing in their collection.

“It helps conceptualize the era,” Dimick said.

There’s also a display of small busts of all the DSO’s music directors; the busts were created by Detroit Historical Museum Senior Curator Joel Stone. A mold of Gabrilowitsch’s hand is on view as well; it’s on loan from the Detroit Public Library.

Visitors will be able to see rare art, architectural documents, concert programs, photos, news clippings and more, and they’ll be able to watch videos and listen to historical recordings of the DSO and several of the jazz greats who performed at the Paradise Theatre.

Carlson said there’s a companion exhibition on display at Orchestra Hall “that kind of tells the 100-year story in miniature.” In a nod to the selfie era, there’s even an area where visitors can snap a photo of themselves with a baton “conducting” the orchestra in front of a large photo of the DSO playing live for an audience.

The rollercoaster ride that is Orchestra Hall’s history is a compelling comeback story.

“Now it’s back and better than ever,” Dimick said. “It’s kind of a microcosm of Detroit (history) in a lot of ways.”

The Detroit Historical Museum is located at 5401 Woodward Ave. in midtown. For admission, hours or more information, call (313) 833-1805 or visit www.detroithistorical.org.