The Campaign to Save Carnegie Hall
Imagine walking 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 you would see a plaque commemorating the Hall’s demolition in 1960—the only visible reminder that the Hall was the site of numerous legendary moments in American cultural history. You might be surprised to learn just how close we came to losing Carnegie Hall.
Following Andrew Carnegie’s death in 1919, his wife, Louise, maintained majority ownership of Carnegie Hall for the next six years. In February 1925, she sold the building to real estate developer Robert Simon Sr. on the condition that it remain standing until a “more suitable concert hall is built.” Within a year, rumors of the Hall’s demise began to circulate, as plans for a new music and arts center in Central Park surfaced—the first of many proposals made by urban planner Robert Moses. Although none of these plans came to fruition, it became clear that a new arts center would put Carnegie Hall’s future in jeopardy.
The Lincoln Square Project
Almost 30 years later, on April 8, 1955, The New York Times published plans by Mayor Robert Wagner’s Slum Clearance Committee—which was headed by Moses—to demolish 25 acres of tenements around Lincoln Square, an area centered around 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 would be set aside for a site to build a new concert hall for the New York Philharmonic.
If the Philharmonic moved to a new home at the performing arts complex that would eventually be known as Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall would lose more than 115 days of rent annually, which would cripple it financially. Newspaper articles soon began to forecast the possible demolition of Carnegie Hall. House manager John Totten—who began working at Carnegie Hall as an usher in 1903 and by 1955 had become 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 soliciting funds to help purchase the building.
The End Seems Near
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 from the Simon family and, in turn, sell it to the New York Philharmonic. When the orchestra declined to purchase the Hall, Glickman instead unveiled plans for a red skyscraper to replace Carnegie Hall; he ultimately abandoned the deal, however, stating that he didn’t wish to leave the Philharmonic homeless before its new Lincoln Center home was 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. It seemed inevitable that Carnegie Hall would be torn down.
Isaac Stern Mounts His Campaign
In December 1959—after making an unprecedented 12 appearances in four days at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein—legendary violinist Isaac Stern mentioned to philanthropist Jacob Kaplan how sad he was that those performances might have been his last at Carnegie Hall. Stern declared 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 in between his concert commitments, Stern organized a small gathering of civic leaders in his home on January 10, 1960. A committee was mobilized, and Kaplan pledged $100,000 toward a new campaign to have the City of New York purchase Carnegie Hall.
Stern needed to convince Mayor Wagner that Carnegie Hall would not compete with Lincoln Center, and that the Hall could instead serve as a national center for music education and young artist development. The 1956 Bard Act, which allowed New York City to protect buildings of “special character, or special historical or aesthetic interest or value”—along with a 1960 amendment by New York State Senator MacNeil Mitchell, championed by Stern, that permitted the city to acquire such buildings by purchase or condemnation—provided the legal means for Stern and his committee to spring into action. Stern appealed to politicians and civic leaders, and asked 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.
Carnegie Hall Is Saved
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 a contribution.
During July and August, the Hall’s 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, 1960, 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 course of more than a half-century since then, 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.
Photography: Life Magazine article courtesy of Life Magazine / Carnegie Hall Rose Archives; all other images courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.
Carnegie Hall Icons
Carnegie Hall Icons celebrates individuals intrinsic to the founding and continued existence of the Hall.