One of the most dynamic and turbulent eras in American history began in the 1890s, when New York City became the epicenter of a powerful young country. It was a city of dueling industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick, and of fortunes made and lost. It was a city of outlaw gangs and the first settlement houses. But it was also a city where great artistic and cultural movements intersected, highlighted by the glittering opening of Carnegie Hall.
This season, Carnegie Hall partners with two of the city’s leading museums to explore that fascinating time with exhibits, lectures, and panel discussions.
The Morgan Library and Museum | New-York Historical Society
Rose Museum and Archives Director Gino Francesconi provides a fascinating and entertaining insight into the Hall's first Opening Night, using some of the earliest and rarest artifacts from the Archives.
Rose Museum and Archives Director Gino Francesconi explains how Andrew Carnegie was set apart from his New York CIty at the turn of the century contemporaries by his different approach to wealth.
As Carnegie Hall celebrates its 120th anniversary, we look
back at what a visitor to the Hall in 1891 would have seen around the
Launch slideshow >
New York City at the Turn of the Century
During an era referred to as
the Gilded Age, the US economy grew at its fastest rate, and industrialism
flourished. New York City in particular began to change rapidly. Following the
end of the Civil War in 1865, a tide of immigration swept through New York. The
city’s population was approximately 800,000 when the war began in 1861, but
quickly rose to over 1.5 million by the time Carnegie Hall was built over 30
This population boom began to
change the layout of the city drastically. In the late-19th century, New York
City did not stretch as far north as 57th Street. Although Central Park had
been built in 1857, it was considered to be very far uptown (14th Street was “midtown”
at the time). Nevertheless, the city’s population was growing so quickly that
it was only a matter of time before New York expanded to 57th Street, where
Carnegie Hall would eventually be built.
The arts in New York City also reached
their grandest heights during this period, with the establishment of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art (founded in 1870), the American Museum of Natural
History (opened 1877) and the Metropolitan Opera House (opened 1883). Even more
significant for the city’s music scene was the founding of the New York Philharmonic.
In the period following its first concert in 1842, the Philharmonic dominated
the music scene in New York. At the time, there were very few orchestras of any
note in the United States, and the New York Philharmonic quickly became far and
away the most renowned in the city. Despite this lack of orchestras,
performance spaces were at a premium. While there were some large music halls
in the city, many were considered outdated and old-fashioned, and the best were
often filled by the Philharmonic. Most of these spaces were centered around
midtown Manhattan (the area around 14th Street), where a number of piano
showrooms and manufacturers were located. The most notable were the following:
Academy of Music, 1854, East 14th Street and Irving Place; seated
4,000Irving Hall, 1860, Irving Place at 15th StreetSteinway Hall, 1866, 14th Street, just west of Broadway;
seated 2,000Knabe Showroom, 1873, Fifth Avenue at 16th StreetChickering Hall, 1875, Fifth Avenue at 18th Street; seated 1,450
In 1883, the Metropolitan Opera House opened at the
corner of 39th Street and Broadway. Over the next three years, the New York
Philharmonic held the majority of its performances at the Met, moving from the
Academy of Music. The Metropolitan Opera House would be the Philharmonic’s most
frequent residence until a serious fire occurred in 1892. Though the Philharmonic had begun to attract
attention in New York City, it was the arrival of renowned conductor Leopold
Damrosch that began to change the landscape of music in New York.
Read More >
Leopold Damrosch arrived in New York in 1871 at the age of 39. He was
already well known in Germany as a violinist and conductor (he arrived with a
letter of recommendation from pianist-composer Franz Liszt), and came to the US
through an invitation from the Arion Society. In 1873, Leopold formed the
Oratorio Society of New York, which gave its first performance that year in the
warehouses of the Knabe piano factory. In 1876, Damrosch was appointed musical
director of the New York Philharmonic, but was replaced after only one season
by Theodore Thomas, a man who would become a lifelong rival (Leopold’s
sister-in-law, Marie von Heimburg, wrote in her memoir that “Theodore Thomas
did everything is his power to prevent Dr. Damrosch from succeeding”). After
this short and uneven tenure, Leopold formed the Symphony Society of New York
in 1878, which gave its first concert in Steinway Hall (then located on 14th
Throughout his life, Leopold found himself constantly frustrated with
the lack of available performance spaces for the Oratorio and Symphony societies.
Nevertheless, he found great success as conductor of both groups and, in May
1881, conducted New York’s first major music festival. This success eventually
led to Leopold’s appointment in 1884 as general manager of the Metropolitan
Opera. The company had just completed its inaugural season, and found itself
nearly a half-million dollars in debt. In addition to general manager, Leopold
served as its chief conductor, and quickly converted the repertory from Italian
to mostly German opera (including several by Richard Wagner). The season would
sadly be Leopold’s last: He died of a severe cold on February 15, 1885, at the
age of 53.
Fortunately, Leopold’s children inherited his musical talents, and the
Damrosch musical dynasty continued through them. Leopold’s oldest son Frank
proved to be a talented conductor, and served as the director of the New York
Institute of Musical Art, which ultimately merged with the Juilliard Graduate
School to form the Juilliard School of Music. Leopold’s daughter Clara married
violinist and conductor David Mannes, and the two founded the Mannes Music
School in 1916. But it was Leopold’s second son, Walter, who eventually succeeded
him as conductor of the Oratorio and Symphony societies, and who played such an
integral role in the founding of Carnegie Hall.
Born on January 30, 1862, Walter had served as an assistant conductor
under his father at the Metropolitan Opera. He shared his father’s love of the
operas of Richard Wagner, and directed a number of them during his time with
the Met. He also shared Leopold’s frustrations with the lack of quality music
halls available for the Oratorio and Symphony societies. Walter’s big
opportunity came when one of the Oratorio Society’s altos, Louise Whitfield,
married the wealthy steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1887. In Carnegie,
the young, ambitious Walter finally saw his chance to build the hall that he
and his father had dreamed of for so long.
Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, on November 25,
1835, to William and Margaret Carnegie. William Carnegie was a linen weaver,
and the family was particularly hard hit by the onset of the Industrial
Revolution. Nearly destitute, the Carnegies decided to move to the United
States in 1848. Andrew had only five years of formal schooling in Scotland, and
after the move he never attended school again. Using their small savings for
the trip, the Carnegies arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they lived
with Margaret’s relatives. Andrew, in an effort to help feed the family,
eventually found a job as a messenger boy for a telegraph company. Andrew was promoted quickly during the next few years, and he became
friendly with many of the company’s clients in the Pittsburgh area, including
Thomas Scott, the superintendent of the Western Division Line railroad.
In 1853, at Scott’s urging, Andrew became his personal assistant and
telegraph operator, for an impressive $35 per month. In 1856, with a loan from
Scott, Andrew invested $600 in the Adams Express Company. The returns he
received amazed him, and he began investing much of his savings in stock. One
of the best investments he made during this time was with the Woodruff Sleeping
Car Company, which would help him greatly in his railroad work in the coming
years. In 1859, Scott was promoted, and Carnegie took his place as the
superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was 24 years old.
Carnegie now became involved in bridge building, and he quickly began
constructing bridges out of iron instead of wood. His company, known as the
Keystone Bridge Company, showed huge profits after only its first year (1865). With
business booming, Carnegie realized his next natural step was to control his
raw material, and he formed the first of his steel-works companies.
The story is often told that Carnegie made a pledge to his mother,
Margaret, not to marry until after her death. Andrew’s
duty, Margaret felt, was to support her to the best of his ability. As he
became wealthier, she became more demanding, and she made it difficult for him
to establish serious relationships with women. In 1880, Andrew was
introduced by a mutual friend to Louise Whitfield.
Born on March 7, 1857, Louise was the
daughter of a well-to-do merchant named John Whitfield. She was an alto
in the Oratorio Society, and friends with Walter Damrosch. By 1881, the relationship had progressed far enough for
Carnegie to invite Louise on a trip to Britain with him and a group of his
closest friends. This turn of events alarmed Margaret Carnegie, who convinced
Louise (and her mother) that this trip would be inappropriate. Despite this
setback, Andrew and Louise became secretly engaged in September 1883. But for
months afterward, their relationship stagnated. Carnegie continued to be vague
about marriage plans and was adamant that no one should know of their
engagement. Finally, in early 1884, the couple broke off their engagement. In
1886, Margaret Carnegie died, and the following year—on April 22, 1887—Louise
and Andrew were finally married. Andrew was 51 years old; Louise was 30.
It was during their honeymoon—on board a ship carrying the newlywed
couple to Europe—that Walter approached the subject of building a music hall with
Andrew and Louise. Walter Damrosch’s ostensible reason for being on the
steamship was that he was going to Europe to study conducting with Hans von
Bülow. The details of the conversations that led to Carnegie’s ultimate
pledging of the initial funds are not clear. It is certain, however, that a
number of conversations occurred, and that the final agreements did not take
place until after the Carnegies returned to New York.