Fifty Years and Powell Hall

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra celebrates half a century at home

By Benjamin Pesetsky

Powell Hall, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s home, could pass for one of the great, late 19th-century orchestral halls of Europe or America. Its foyer and grand staircases, red velvet, and—most importantly—beautiful acoustics make it an exemplary venue for an orchestra. But it was not originally so intended: it began life as a movie palace and Vaudeville playhouse called the St. Louis Theatre. After purchasing the building and completing a two-year renovation, the SLSO took up residence in January 1968.This month, the orchestra marks the 50th anniversary of its first permanent home.

From the mid-1930s, the SLSO performed at the Kiel Auditorium, first known simply as the Municipal Auditorium, and now reopened as the Peabody Opera House. Before the 1930s, the orchestra performed at the now-demolished Odeon. Both venues were rented and the orchestra didn’t control or have full use of them. They were also not ideal for concerts: at the Kiel Auditorium, noise from basketball games in the neighboring Field House would sometimes bleed through a shared wall. But for many decades, it was where St. Louisans would go to hear their orchestra.

The Foundations
Several fortuitous events in the mid-1960s made a move possible. First, Oscar Johnson, Jr., who was president of the St. Louis Symphony Society, promised half a million dollars to the orchestra to purchase a building, but stipulated that the money had to be used by 1967 or it would go to another institution. This triggered an initial search for a hall.

Around the same time, a scheduling error at the Kiel Auditorium left the orchestra without a venue for a promised concert date. The St. Louis Theatre was available, so the orchestra booked the old movie palace, and the players were immediately impressed by its fine acoustics.

Vaudeville theater, by the 1960s, had long ceased to be popular and commercially viable entertainment, and big-city movie palaces were already threatened by the rise of television and suburban growth. Under these circumstances, the orchestra arranged to put Johnson’s donation toward the purchase the St. Louis Theatre for $388,475, and secured both a gift from Helen Lamb Powell and a grant from the Ford Foundation to renovate it into an orchestral hall.

Articles and correspondence from the time refer to Helen Lamb only as Mrs. Walter S. Powell, obscuring her identity and other accomplishments. In fact, she was an innovative nurse anesthetist at Barnes Hospital (now Barnes-Jewish Hospital), and founded the Barnes Hospital School of Anesthesia. Only upon her retirement in 1951 did she marry Walter S. Powell, a director and manager of the Brown Shoe Company in St. Louis. When they married, she was 61 and he was 72.

The Powells loved the symphony, but perhaps loved figure skating even more.
Walter S. Powell served as president of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, among  other roles. In 1961, he died in a plane crash while accompanying the U.S. World Team to the World Figure Skating Championships in Prague. Nearly six years after his death, Helen Lamb gave one million dollars to the SLSO, and the hall was named for him. She later moved to San Diego and was married two more times, lastly in 1973, at the age of 82.

The Building
The St. Louis Theatre opened in 1925 and was designed by Rapp & Rapp, which was a leading architectural firm for theaters and movie palaces. The auditorium’s acoustics were originally designed to carry the unamplified sounds of small Vaudeville orchestras, as well as the theater organ used to accompany silent movies. The public spaces were designed to evoke European elegance, including a chandeliered foyer, modeled after the Chapel of Versailles. All these qualities made it appropriate for transformation into an orchestral venue.

There was much work to be done, however. The acoustics, while already quite good, needed modification to be ideal for a full orchestra. The backstage area, intended for small troupes of performers, was woefully insufficient for nearly 100 orchestra musicians. All the chairs in the house required replacement, and the seating capacity was reduced to 2,717. The entrance, later named the Wightman Grand Foyer, needed a facelift, so its checkerboard floor was covered with marble.

All these renovations, and more, were completed between 1966 and 1968. The St. Louis architectural firm, Wedemeyer, Cernik & Corrubia, led the project, and Cyril Harris, an acoustician from Columbia University, was hired as a consultant. To test the properties of the hall, another acoustician shot a pistol, loaded with blanks, from the stage while recording the gunshot from various points in the hall.

Moving In
The SLSO’s first concert in the renovated Powell Hall took place at an inaugural gala on Saturday, January 24, 1968. The program included Britten’s The Building of the House, in its American premiere, and Stravinsky’s Petrushka. After the concert, the orchestra pushed their setup back, and patrons danced on the stage.

Today, only two players remain in the SLSO who played at that first concert. One is Lawrence Strieby, a horn player, and the other is Donald Martin, a bassist who joined the orchestra in 1962.

“We were absolutely excited,” Martin said in a recent interview. “The idea that we could have a home, and that we could do what we wanted there with no interferences, would be the ultimate thing. Every orchestra needs their own place, and most do nowadays.”

He reflected on the opening of Powell Hall as a dividing moment between two eras. “For those of us who know, or remember, or can imagine not having a permanent place, we understand it’s so important. When you have a home, you have everything you need—offices, places to practice, and then performance space on the stage. That’s a real home, and I love it.”

Powell Hall Today
The building has not remained unchanged since the 1968 renovation. The orchestra has continued to make modifications—small and large—over the years to suit its needs. The acoustics were further refined in the late ‘70s by lowering the ceiling over the stage. The men’s and women’s lounges in the lower level lobby were converted to become the music library and Whitaker Room.

Powell Hall is now overseen and maintained by Cynthia Schon, director of facilities, and two building engineers. They know all the building’s ins-and-outs, and encounter reminders of its history every day.

“In any space that’s behind the shell, as soon as you step back into a space for mechanical reasons, you can see its past,” Schon said. The first-floor green room, for example, was originally a ladies’ hat shop that provided an extra source of revenue for the theater. Its sunken floor made moving pianos in and out impractical, until it was raised to stage level in a later renovation.

Schon also knows a hidden space, behind the second-floor dressing room, now used  to store percussion instruments and old files. It was once the organ loft, open to the theater, before it was walled off in the acoustic renovation. Now it is only accessible from the back, through an obscure access door, its gilded columns hidden from public view.

Many of the world’s greatest performers have passed through the dressing room adjacent to this space. And while the backstage area might not be as glamorous as the public spaces, guest artists invariably love the hall. After his first performance at the new venue, the violinist Isaac Stern said, “it has warmth that enhances a performance…a pleasure for a musician. Powell Hall is first-rate. It ranks with Carnegie Hall in New York and Symphony Hall in Boston.”

The orchestra’s music directors, past and present, express similar sentiments. “Powell Hall allows for the creation of extreme dynamics, and at the same time, there’s a clarity to it as well,” said Leonard Slatkin, the SLSO’s conductor laureate, who led the orchestra from 1979 to 1996, and served as assistant conductor in 1968. “For a large hall, that’s unusual. It’s wonderful, and a minor miracle.”

“A hall like Powell is itself a fine instrument—it completely transforms the listening experience,” said current SLSO Music Director David Robertson in an interview with Radio Arts Foundation-St. Louis. “It’s a St. Louis treasure that we’re blessed to perform in each weekend.” Powell has also served as the recording site for several Grammy award-winning albums by the SLSO, most recently John Adams’s City Noir with Robertson in 2014.

In 2001, Powell Hall was entered in the National Register of Historic Places, and has been a cornerstone of the Grand Center Redevelopment Project since 1981, along with the Fox Theatre and the Sheldon Memorial Concert Hall.

The fact that the SLSO finally owned a hall made the creation of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra possible in 1970—and the SLSYO has rehearsed onstage each week during the school year ever since. Additionally, Powell is home to the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, the IN UNISON Chorus, Family and Education Concerts, and a wide variety of community programs. It has also attracted leading popular music artists, and has been the site of lectures by famous speakers; this year’s schedule includes Prime Minister David Cameron and President Bill Clinton. In 2001, Powell Hall was entered in the National Register of Historic Places.

To mark 50 years of Powell Hall, the SLSO has made Saturday, January 20, an open house with free activities from 11:00am to 2:30pm. Then at 7:00pm, there will be a screening of The Sound of Music (Admission $5; The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra does not perform for this performance). In addition, the SLSO has partnered with the St. Louis Public Library to mount a free exhibit at the Central Library, running from January 16 through March 17.

The Sound of Music was the last movie to play at the old St. Louis Theatre, and the SLSO pays tribute to its home’s silver-screen past by showing it once more. But of course, the “sound of music” never left this gilded theater—it has only grown stronger.

Research contributed by Maureen Byrne.

For more information, visit slso/powellat50.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer, writer, and publications consultant to the St. Louis
Symphony Orchestra.