The Construction of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (1959-69)

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

Original plans for Lincoln Square Development Plan
as approved October 31, 1956 show many proposed changes to the area. Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was just one element to the plan.

By the 1950s, two of the United States’ oldest performing arts organizations—The Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic—were searching for new homes. Meanwhile, Robert Moses was leading the massive Lincoln Square Urban Renewal Project. This convergence led to the imagination and construction of the world’s first modern performing arts center. This is the story of how Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was constructed.

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The Empire State Building can be seen in the distance of this aerial view of four completed buildings on the Lincoln Center site, July 16, 1965.

In 1959, crowds gather for the ground breaking in the heart of New York City for what would become the world’s leading performing arts center.

Groundbreaking with President Eisenhower
The dream of creating a campus for a variety of performing arts became a reality on May 14, 1959 at the corner of Broadway and West 64th Street in Manhattan. 

President Dwight D. Eisenhower breaks ground on Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts with (from left to right) Borough President Hulan Jack, Mayor Robert Wagner, John D. Rockefeller III (head turned) and Lieutenant Governor Malcolm Wilson.

Lincoln Center transformed 16.3 acres of Manhattan's Upper West Side into the cultural heart of New York City.

"Here will occur, a true interchange of fruits of national cultures…"
—President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall)
The first building to rise was Philharmonic Hall. Designed by Max Abramovitz, Philharmonic Hall—later called Avery Fisher Hall and now David Geffen Hall—became the home of America’s oldest symphony orchestra, the New York Philharmonic.

The sublevels to Philharmonic Hall are evident before the rest the plaza is filled in.

People preparing for the opening night of the Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center.

Opening Night of Philharmonic Hall was the first performance at Lincoln Center.

Philharmonic Hall glows against the dark New York City night.

Opening Night with Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in the inaugural Lincoln Center concert on September 23, 1962. The program included Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and the world premiere of Connotations by Aaron Copland.

New York State Theater (now David H. Koch Theater)
The New York State Theater was the next to arrive. Architect Philip Johnson’s mid-century marvel is an ode to the dancers of the New York City Ballet, which calls the building home. It also housed Music Theater of Lincoln Center, led by Richard Rodgers, through 1969, and the New York City Opera until 2011. 

World's Fair and Lincoln Center for Performing Arts Sign "Memorandum of Understanding" (April 6, 1961)

On April 6, 1961, Lincoln Center signed a memorandum of understanding to become the cultural arm of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair.

The New York State Theater’s opening night performance would be the first cultural program under this agreement.

In this image, Robert Moses (left), president of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, and General Maxwell D. Taylor, president of Lincoln Center, sign the memorandum. Renderings of the Unisphere and Lincoln Center are featured in the background.

Members of the New York City Ballet testing the stage of the New York State Theater (May 14, 1963)

The stage floor of the New York State Theater was specially designed for the dance. Here they are testing a mock-up of that flooring in the New York State Theater. George Balanchine is visible on the left-hand side of the image (not wearing a hardhat).

Members of the New York City Ballet testing the stage of the New York State Theater (May 14, 1963)

Notice the hole on the side of the York State Theater? A section of the new building needed to be removed so that Elie Nadelman’s giant twin sculptures—each 20 feet high—could be brought into the building.

Elie Nadelman’s giant sculptures—Circus Women (front) and Two Female Nudes (rear)—are installed in the promenade of the New York State Theater.

New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine called the theater a “jewel box” and each ballerina one of his “jewels.” Now called the David H. Koch Theater, it features forty-foot gold leaf ceilings, "jewel" faceted lights, an immense chandelier, and the lobby curtain featuring eight million gold beads—one for each citizen of New York City when the theater opened on April 23, 1964.

Lincoln Center's Third Building
Designed by architect Eero Saarinen, the Lincoln Center's third building was built to house two different theaters, the Vivian Beaumont Theater at plaza level and the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at street level, within its travertine walls. It opened on October 21, 1965. A third theater, the Claire Tow Theater, was added to the roof in 2012.

The Vivian Beaumont Theater was the first theater for drama constructed in New York City since 1927.

The floorplan for the Lincoln Center theaters and the New York Public Library shows how they share the building.

Construction continues on the combined Lincoln Center Theater/New York Public Library building. This image shows the brickwork for the structure that will houses the research collections of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Below that, the open space became the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Below that, the sidewalk level houses the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

The Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, which resided at Lincoln Center until 1973, inaugurated the theater with a revival of a Georg Büchner’s 1835 play Danton's Death, featuring James Earl Jones and Stacy Keach. The building is now the domain of Lincoln Center Theater.

The finished structure shines, showing both The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and Vivian Beaumont Theater through the trees.

Metropolitan Opera House
Perhaps the most visually recognizable of Lincoln Center’s buildings, the Metropolitan Opera House and its famous arches were completed in 1966. 

Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center - Longitudinal Section

1. Main stage (with seven hydraulic platforms)
2. Orchestra space
3. Auditorium
4. Main lobby (entrance Plaza Level)
5. Lower lobby (entrance Garage Level)
6. Restaurant
7. Control (lighting-sound)
8. Mechanical area (sub-stage)
9. First grid (working level)
10. Second grid (motor drives - 107 sound pipes)
11. Back stage
12. Scenery stage
13. Shops
14. Paint frame area
15. Rehearsal area

The arches of the Opera House are almost complete. You can also see the already completed Philharmonic Hall and Lincoln Center Theater building.

The building was based on chief architect Wallace Harrison’s forty-third design. It is the length of one-and-a-half football fields and boasts five stages.

Marc Chagall's paintings, The Triumph of Music (shown here) and The Sources of Music, are an iconic aspect of the Metropolitan Opera House. Chagall unveiled his murals in the Metropolitan Opera House on September 8, 1966.

The Metropolitan Opera House officially opened on September 16, 1966. Leontyne Price starred as Cleopatra in the world premiere production of Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra.

The Juilliard School & Alice Tully Hall
The last building of the campus to be completed was the complex containing The Juilliard School and Alice Tully Hall.

The foundation for the Alice Tully Hall and The Juilliard School rises at the corner of 65th street and Columbus Avenue.

Here, construction on the stage and auditorium of Alice Tully Hall begins. Iron work for The Juilliard School is visible to the right, while Philharmonic Hall can be seen in the upper left-hand corner.

The Juilliard School opened its doors at Lincoln Center to students on October 26, 1969.

Alice Tully Hall
Alice Tully Hall was envisioned as New York City's first major concert hall designed specifically for chamber music. The Hall opened on September 11, 1969, featuring the first concert of the new Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. 
Public Art at Lincoln Center
Massive sculptures complete the scene in the north plaza. Henry Moore is seen here with his sculpture "Reclining Figure" (1965) which lies in the reflecting pool. 

Moore's sculpture enjoys a snowy day with Philharmonic Hall in the background.

Alexander Calder was commissioned to create a piece of art for the complex. Here, he poses as his abstract sculpture is installed behind him. The piece sits in front of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.

"Le Guichet" (1963) is Calder's playful take on a hand reaching through a ticket window. The side of the Met Opera is seen in the background.

Lincoln Center became the cultural heartbeat of New York City. Each year over 5 million people visit Lincoln Center and its 11 resident organizations:

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, The Film Society of Lincoln Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Juilliard School, Lincoln Center Theater, The Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, New York Philharmonic,
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, School of American Ballet, and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

“Lincoln Center is more than the sum of its parts; more than the individual experience of a great performance…It offers qualities which illuminate and give meaning to our lives, those special qualities of perfection, nobility, and splendor, which only the arts can give.”

—William Schuman, President, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (1961–1969)

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