The Birth of Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall

It was a pivotal moment in history. Industrialization had taken hold of the United States. New York City was emerging as an international capital. And in 1891, its cultural gem—Carnegie Hall—opened its doors with a superstar of classical music on its stage.

Laying the cornerstone, 1890, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall
Dramatis Personae
Four individuals were indispensably key to Carnegie Hall's conception, design, and execution.
Andrew Carnegie, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Andrew Carnegie: Gilded Age Philanthropist

Andrew and Louise Carnegie, 1887, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

On a cruise to Scotland for his honeymoon with new wife Louise, Andrew Carnegie met the conductor of the Oratorio Society of New York, Walter Damrosch, who wanted a new home for his organization.

Walter Damrosch, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

The meeting, probably more than fortuitous, resulted in Carnegie inviting the young conductor to Skibo, his estate in Scotland, to discuss plans for a new concert hall in New York City.

William Burnet Tuthill, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Before he was commissioned to build one, Tuthill had never designed a concert hall. Nevertheless, he conceived an elegant building and also—and most notably—gave Carnegie Hall its legendary sound.

Carnegie Hall, 1891, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall
The Building
Built too far Uptown, designed by an architect who had never previously drafted a music hall and never would again, and with a design that went against all conventional thought on the subject, Carnegie Hall was surely doomed to failure.
Etching of the eventual site of Carnegie Hall, 1868, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

The chosen site for the new concert hall was then known as "Hogtown" and seen as being too far from Midtown to be a success—Midtown, at that time, being centered around 14th Street.

Etching of the eventual site of Carnegie Hall, 1868, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Look carefully for the "hog" in Hogtown.

Laying the cornerstone, 1890, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Louise Carnegie cemented the cornerstone of the Music Hall—renamed Carnegie Hall in 1894—into place during a ceremony on May 13, 1890. The total cost of the building project, mostly financed personally by Carnegie, was $1.1 million.

Cutaway drawing of Carnegie Hall by architect William Burnet Tuthill, 1889, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall
Construction of the original roof, 1890, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Construction of the Hall took less than one year. The steel for the trusses from which the ceiling of the main auditorium is suspended was milled in Carnegie's Pennsylvania and New Jersey mills.

Construction of the original roof, 1890, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Central Park, opened only 35 years earlier, can be seen in the background.

Sketch of the main lobby under construction, 1890, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

The sketch of the main lobby's construction is very similar to what audiences still see today.

Sketch of the main lobby under construction, 1890, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

The ceiling of the vaulted lobby was lined with Guastavino tiles.

This is how the lobby appears today. Use this as a starting point for your virtual tour of Carnegie Hall.

Ticket for Carnegie Hall's Opening Night concert, May 5, 1891, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall
The Music and the Opening
Though Carnegie Hall did not officially open until May 1891, concerts were performed in one of the smaller halls in the months preceding a week-long extravaganza in the main auditorium that began on May 5 and featured some of the leading figures in classical music.
Letter announcing an open rehearsal of the New York Oratorio Society in the Recital Hall, 1891, Carnegie Hall Archive, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Fittingly, the Oratorio Society—for which the Hall was built—produced the first music in the new venue with an open rehearsal in the Recital Hall almost two full months before the official opening.

Program from pianist Arthur Friedhelm's performances in the Recital Hall, April 1891, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Although the Hall did not officially open until May 5, 1891—and no performances took place in the big hall—the Recital Hall was host to several concerts throughout the preceding April.

Program from pianist Arthur Friedhelm's performances in the Recital Hall, April 1891, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Work continued on the building while concerts took place in the Recital Hall.

Opening Festival Poster, May 5-9, 1891, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Andrew Carnegie’s new Music Hall opened with a star-studded five-day music festival that began on May 5, 1891.

Opening Festival Poster, May 5-9, 1891, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Walter Damrosch's place in New York City music circles and in the realization of Carnegie Hall is reflected in his prime position on the poster for the opening-week festivities.

Opening Festival Poster, May 5-9, 1891, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Tchaikovsky traveled from St. Petersburg, Russia, at great expense.

Opening Festival Poster, May 5-9, 1891, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

Italo Campanini was a leading Italian tenor of the day who, having made his name in London in the 1870s, had attained a similar level of fame in New York by 1891.

Autographed photograph of Tchaikovsky, 1892, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

His invitation to perform on opening night in 1891 began a century-long connection between Tchaikovsky and Carnegie Hall, as explained in this video.

Autographed quote from Tchaikovsky's Suite No. 3, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

This rare and valuable item from Carnegie Hall's Archives—Tchaikovsky's autograph complete with a musical sketch—dates from a week before his opening-night appearance. Although he signed many, few survive.

Carnegie Hall Archives and Rose Museum Director Gino Francesconi provides a fascinating and entertaining insight into the Hall's first opening night, using some of the earliest and rarest artifacts.

Tchaikovsky conducted his "Marche Solennelle" at the opening night concert on May 5, 1891. Although told the contrary, he was impressed that US audiences were so familiar with his music.

Carnegie Hall, 1891, From the collection of: Carnegie Hall

This is the earliest photograph of the completed Hall as it looked in 1891.

Your Virtual Tour of Carnegie Hall
Enjoy a tour of Carnegie Hall, including behind the scenes access not normally available to the public.
Carnegie Hall
Credits: Story

Images courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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