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.
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.
"Here will occur, a true interchange of fruits of national cultures…"
—President Dwight D. Eisenhower
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.
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).
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.
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.
Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center - Longitudinal Section
1. Main stage (with seven hydraulic platforms)
2. Orchestra space
4. Main lobby (entrance Plaza Level)
5. Lower lobby (entrance Garage Level)
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
14. Paint frame area
15. Rehearsal area
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 opened its doors at Lincoln Center to students on October 26, 1969.
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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