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.
Andrew Carnegie: Gilded Age Philanthropist
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.
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.
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.
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.
Look carefully for the "hog" in Hogtown.
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.
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.
Central Park, opened only 35 years earlier, can be seen in the background.
The sketch of the main lobby's construction is very similar to what audiences still see today.
The ceiling of the vaulted lobby was lined with Guastavino tiles.
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.
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.
Work continued on the building while concerts took place in the Recital Hall.
Andrew Carnegie’s new Music Hall opened with a star-studded five-day music festival that began on May 5, 1891.
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.
Tchaikovsky traveled from St. Petersburg, Russia, at great expense.
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.
His invitation to perform on opening night in 1891 began a century-long connection between Tchaikovsky and Carnegie Hall, as explained in this video.
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.
This is the earliest photograph of the completed Hall as it looked in 1891.
Images courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.