Imagine walking up to the corner of 57th Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan and finding an office building instead of the world’s most famous concert hall. Perhaps there’d be a plaque commemorating its 1960 demolition, the only visible reminder of the site of numerous legendary moments in American cultural history.
For many, memories of Isaac Stern’s successful campaign to save Carnegie Hall from destruction are still vivid, despite the decades that have passed. But others who have grown accustomed to its vital role as part of our artistic world might be surprised to learn just how close we came to losing Carnegie Hall.
For six years after Andrew Carnegie’s death, his wife Louise maintained majority ownership of the building, but in February 1925, she sold Carnegie Hall to real estate developer Robert Simon Sr. on the condition that the building remain standing until a “more suitable concert hall is built.” Within a year, rumors of the hall’s demise started circulating as plans for a new Music and Art Center in Central Park surfaced, the first of many proposals made by the infamous public planner Robert Moses. Though none of these plans came to fruition, it became clear that a new arts center would put Carnegie Hall’s future in jeopardy.
On April 8, 1955, The New York Times announced plans by Mayor Robert Wagner’s Slum Clearance Committee—headed by Moses—to demolish 25 acres of tenements around Lincoln Square, at the intersection of Broadway, Columbus Avenue, and West 65th Street. The project’s stated intent was to provide Fordham University with a midtown location. The article noted, almost in passing, that the committee’s members “would not be averse to bringing into the area a new Metropolitan Opera House.” By October, Moses let it be known that an acre in the project was being held for a new concert hall for the New York Philharmonic.
If the Philharmonic moved to a new Lincoln Center home, Carnegie Hall would lose more than 115 days of rent annually, crippling it financially. Articles soon began forecasting the possible demolition of Carnegie Hall. House manager John Totten, who began at Carnegie Hall as an usher in 1903 and by 1955 was a vice-president of Carnegie Hall, Inc., formed a committee to save the Hall, contacting hundreds of musicians and music patrons to raise awareness and solicit funds to help purchase the building.
The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was incorporated in June 1956; a month later The New York Times proclaimed in a front-page story that the plan was for the new arts complex to be the largest and grandest of its kind in the world.
At the same time, real estate developer Louis J. Glickman offered to buy Carnegie Hall and sell it to the New York Philharmonic. When the orchestra declined, Glickman then unveiled plans for a fire-engine red skyscraper to replace Carnegie Hall, but ultimately abandoned the deal, stating he didn’t wish to leave the Philharmonic homeless in the period before their new Lincoln Center home would be ready.
Even though the Glickman deal was off the table, Carnegie Hall’s fate remained extremely grim. Although the Philharmonic agreed to stay until May 1960, John Totten’s Committee to Save Carnegie Hall had raised less than $25,000 of the $5 million needed to purchase the building. Other committees had also been formed by the Hall’s tenants or well-wishers. Each contributed to keeping the cause alive in the public eye, but it seemed inevitable that Carnegie Hall would be torn down.
After making an unprecedented 12 appearances in four days with the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall in December 1959, Isaac Stern mentioned to philanthropist Jacob Kaplan how sad he was that the performances could be his last at Carnegie Hall. Pressing harder, Stern exclaimed that something more should be done to save the hall from demolition, and Kaplan agreed to fund a new effort—if Stern would be willing to spearhead the campaign. The violinist happily agreed.
Acting quickly and between concert commitments, Stern organized a small gathering of civic leaders in his home on January 10, 1960. A committee was mobilized, and Jacob Kaplan pledged $100,000 towards a new campaign to have the City of New York purchase Carnegie Hall.
Stern had to convince Mayor Wagner that Carnegie Hall would not compete with Lincoln Center, but could instead be saved to serve as a national center for teaching music and the development of young artists. The 1956 Bard Act, which allowed New York City to protect buildings of “special character, or special historical or aesthetic interest or value,” and 1960 amendment by Senator MacNeil Mitchell—championed by Stern—permitting the City to acquire such buildings by purchase or condemnation provided the legal means for Stern and his committee to spring into action. He appealed to politicians and civic leaders, and contacted dozens of famous musicians to sign a petition in favor of saving Carnegie Hall. Their signatures were added to thousands already gathered by earlier committees.
On June 10, 1960, the New York City Board of Estimate approved the purchase of Carnegie Hall for $5 million, with another $100,000 for improvements. Robert Simon Jr.—who had inherited majority ownership of Carnegie Hall upon his father’s death in 1935—lowered the purchase price by $250,000 as his contribution to the Hall.
During July and August, the interior was painted, the seats reupholstered, the rugs replaced, and a new stage curtain installed. The exterior was steam-cleaned for the first time in 40 years. On September 26, Mayor Wagner conducted the Department of Sanitation Band before a ribbon-cutting ceremony, after which the public was invited to explore the newly decorated hall.
Carnegie Hall was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and a New York City Landmark in 1967. Over the past 50 years, the Hall could have become a distant memory. But thanks to a small group of people, led by Isaac Stern, Carnegie Hall will be enjoyed by all in perpetuity.