Restoration Revives Historic Detroit Orchestra Hall and Surrounding Community
In October of 2003, Detroit saw the complete restoration of its beloved Orchestra Hall and the much awaited opening of the Max Fisher Music Center that now houses this cultural landmark so heavily entwined in the city's rich history. The $60 million project creates a new music center complex consisting of the restored and modernized Orchestra Hall - a 2,000-seat space built in 1919 and listed in the National Register of Historic Sites - and a new 135,000-square-foot facility that includes two major components: a new 500-seat second performance hall, and the 15,000-square-foot Jacob Bernard Pincus Music Education Center, which will support the DSO's youth ensembles and other educational activities.

The opening of The Max marks the completion of Phase II of the three-phase Orchestra Place Development Project launched in 1996. Phase III, scheduled for completion in 2005, is the Detroit High School for the Fine, Performing & Communication Arts. Situated next to The Max, the new $122.5 million "magnet" public high school and broadcast technology complex is part of a unique partnership between the DSO, the Detroit Public Schools System and Detroit Public Television (DPTV). The school features a state-of-the-art digital telecommunications center with production studios, and broadcast studios for WDTR-FM, the radio station of the school system.

Designed by C. Howard Crane, a specialist in theatrical architecture (who designed 52 theaters in Detroit alone), the original Orchestra Hall was built in 1919, in just over four months at the cost of $1 million. From its grand opening until the early 1930's the Orchestra Hall was home to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. But the rough economic times of the 1940's forced the DSO to move and the hall became a premiere jazz venue named The Paradise Theater, and hosted such jazz luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington. When interest in Jazz declined in the 1950's, the Hall fell into disrepair and remained derelict until 1970, when it barely escaped demolition and was almost replaced by an Italian restaurant. Paul Ganson, a bassoonist with the DSO learned of the planned demolition and organized a grassroots organization named "Save Orchestra Hall", which through tireless efforts raised enough money to purchase the Orchestra Hall. In 1990 the grassroots effort attracted the support of world renowned philanthropist Max Fisher who fueled the remaining efforts that made the restoration a reality.


Historic Restoration
One of the aims of the Orchestra Hall restoration project was to fully update the building's systems (heating, lighting, etc), while staying as meticulously accurate as possible to the neo-classical style of the original Orchestra Hall. The architects and suppliers involved were able to remain true to the historical details by finding creative ways to update and modernize the facility without compromising its architectural design.

To preserve the interior's heavily decorated style of plaster formwork on the walls and ceiling, a new plenum was cut in the basement to create room for a unique heating system that utilizes ducts placed under the ground floor seating. This network of ducts, lets low air flow circulate, bringing subtle temperature changes into the theater while preserving the historic details of the original 1919 plasterwork on the walls and ceiling. Other additions and refurbishments added to the Orchestra Hall include new stage lights in front of the proscenium and new stage lights along the side walls, as well as a replica of the original marquee.

For the sake of improved comfort, and as part of the modernization process, 2,200 new theater seats were fabricated by the Irwin Seating Company, specialists in seating restoration, based in Grand Rapids. The seats were purposely refinished with colors and materials to recreate the Hall's original look.

Krieger Specialty Products, specialists in acoustical and sound control doors, were also selected based upon their ability to preserve the halls original details. Brought into the project at a late stage, Krieger was asked to rush and custom manufacture 26 acoustical doors and various acoustical frames and sound seals, that would complement with the Orchestra Hall's existing, sandstone wall construction.


Visionary Expansion
Diamond and Schmitt Architects, based in Toronto, were the design visionaries behind the Max Fisher Music Center - the modern addition that now adjoins the restored Orchestra Hall. Fondly referred to as "The Max", the 135,000-square-foot center, takes the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's performance space into the modern world of upgraded electrical, mechanical, and acoustical systems, as well as the modern era of comfort and convenience, for both patrons and musicians.

The Max M. Fisher Center introduces a range of new and expanded amenities for patrons and musicians, including the first elevators in Orchestra Hall's long history, several new lobby spaces for comfortable, pre-show and intermission mingling, a 200-seat rehearsal hall, multi-level coat check areas, administration offices, a historical display, a green room for artists, many additional and upgraded restroom facilities, and Shop @ The Max - a store providing CDs, DVDs, educational items and book selections for every musical taste.

Upon entering The Max one is greeted by the grandeur of the new four-story, 17,000-square-foot atrium lobby, connecting multiple levels of the Hall and featuring steel, glass, stone, bronze, and wood design elements. Working with the scale and proportion of Orchestra Hall's original brick façade, Diamond and Schmitt rendered a towering wall of glass for the atrium, by defining the expansive space with a series of bronze-clad fins, and replicating the Orchestra Hall's original bay structure. A series of bronze chain mail curtains were installed to create a dramatic contrast to the exposed steel beams, and to accentuate the punched bronze panel stair guards.

Beyond the performance areas, which the concert going public sees, are updated and necessary features such as temperature-controlled rooms built for instrument storage, and fully modernized dressing rooms for the musical director, members of the orchestra, and guest artists. Also, a new music library was built to contain the DSO's extensive collection of rare scores.


Acoustics to Match
Because the Orchestra Hall has a worldwide reputation for superior acoustics, it was understood from the start that the acoustical features of the Music Box, the center's new 450- seat performance hall, would have to be a top priority.

Jaffe Holden Acoustics, based in Norwalk, Connecticut, were brought in to shape the acoustics of the 450-seat Music Box and the 200-seat Robert A. and Maggie Allesee Rehearsal Hall. Jaffe Holden utilized specially designed acoustical panels, sculpted into sound-reflecting facets lining the walls of the two theaters. Appearing as if plaster but in reality made up of triple-layer drywall, these facets are meant to create an enhanced and consistent sound quality no matter where the listener sits in the performance space.

Sound quality in The Music Box can be further acoustically "shaped" by reconfiguring each theater's front walls, which have been hinged just for this purpose. And those concert goers who happen to look up at the ceiling will find sculpted, reflective "clouds" designed to provide balance and integration to sound, which through the nature of physics naturally rises to the ceiling. As an added acoustical bonus, seating and doors in the Music Box have been designed retract into the wall, enabling a variety of space size configurations as needed to create just the right ambiance.


Community Restored
As is the case in many renovation and building renewal projects across the country, the Orchestra Hall renovation and the Max Fisher addition, has had positive repercussions for a large section of Midtown Detroit. For many years, the blocks surrounding the Orchestra Hall had been a decaying urban neighborhood caught in a cycle of crime and disrepair. With it's opening, the Max Fisher has changed the caliber of people drawn to this downtown community. Rather than being seen as an area to avoid, the neighborhood has become a vibrant cultural center that has attracted new businesses. Numerous boutiques and cafes have set up shop on the streets around The Max, and now enjoy the patronage of the music and culture lovers who are drawn to it.

Though it took decades, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has finally returned to its home, a performance hall that continues to have acoustics to rival those of Carnegie Hall in New York and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. From its be-dazzled grand opening in the 1930's, through its dark years in the mid-seventies, to its fully restored and modernized grandeur, Detroit's Orchestra Hall has survived the 20th Century. The addition of the Max Fisher center has evolved to meet the needs of a diverse community, so it can once again serve as a gathering place for lovers of music, for years to come.
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