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Saving Detroit’s Orchestra Hall

Heroic effort sparks ongoing revival of once-dead neighborhood

October 16, 2003 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Detroit Symphony Orchestra
  The grand opening of the Max M. Fisher Music Center in October of 2003 completed the restoration and dramatic expansion of Orchestra Hall (far left).

Last Saturday night’s grand celebration of the opening of the Max M. Fisher Music Center in downtown Detroit drew a standing-room-only, black-tie audience to Orchestra Hall, the most precious part of the new complex. The glittering crowd applauded warmly as Detroit Symphony Orchestra officials acknowledged an impressive list of attending dignitaries, including Governor Jennifer Granholm, U. S. Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. But when DSO Chairman of the Board Peter Cummings introduced the orchestra’s principal bassoonist, Paul Ganson, the applause changed to cheers that were so strong they forced Mr. Ganson to rise to his feet from his seat in the middle of the orchestra not once, but twice.

Mr. Ganson was the hero of the evening because he played such a crucial role in saving the Hall, one of the world’s most acoustically and visually splendid concert venues. Soon after the orchestra hired him almost 35 years ago, Mr. Ganson was the one who first pounded on the doors of Detroit’s movers and shakers and rallied the community to tackle that seemingly impossible mission

Mr. Ganson’s leadership role in the successful crusade to save the renowned but badly crumbling building surprised many people. Subsequent events, however, have offer even bigger surprises. Gleaming from its second major overhaul in 15 years, Orchestra Hall is now the grandest piece of the much larger and still-growing Orchestra Place, a dazzling blend of old and new that people are already learning to call “the Max”—a modern yet warm assemblage of new performance venues, administrative offices, badly needed backstage amenities, classrooms, and rehearsal spaces. As last Saturday night demonstrated, the complex also has enough room to throw an eloquent banquet and party for 2,200 people.

The arrival of the Max marks a turning point in the history of the DSO, but its affect on the once almost completely deteriorated neighborhood around it may be even more profound. What Mr. Ganson and his friends started so many years ago inadvertently gave a tangible push to other, nearby Detroit revitalization projects that is still being felt today.

To the Rescue
Mr. Ganson’s epiphany occurred on September 17, 1970, when he discovered that wrecking balls were about to flatten the grand building. Orchestra Hall’s superb architecture and history were just hours away from crumbling into rubble.

The DSO built its splendid music palace on Woodward Avenue in 1919 and performed there until 1939, when financial problems forced the orchestra to abandon it. Two years later, it reopened as the Paradise Theater, a wildly popular jazz venue for the city’s African-American community until 1951. After that golden era ended the building was closed for good and left to rot, its long decline interrupted only by the occasional return of the DSO to record albums that are still admired for their sound quality.

By the time Mr. Ganson returned to his native city and new job, the hall was in dreadful shape: The roof was collapsing, the walls had gaping holes, crumbled concrete and stone lay everywhere: The place was ripe for demolition. With wrecking balls poised to level the building, Mr.Ganson formed a group with the hall’s former business manager, Richard Magon. They called everyone they knew, pleaded with city officials, and, somehow, managed to delay demolition. 

“In the early days we were desperate for help from anybody.” Mr. Ganson recalled of his group, which named itself the Committee to Save Orchestra Hall. “But there is a feeling that one cannot stop. We had to keep on going. It’s the power of the ensemble when we’re at our best as people.”

These newborn activists succeeded in listing the hall on the National Register of Historic Places, raised $100,200 in 24 months, and triumphantly purchased the building. Then they raised more money and repaired it enough to reopen it to public concerts. As concertgoers ventured into the still-spooky building to see an occasional performance produced by a few brave concert promoters, more good things happened.
“There was no one who came to Orchestra Hall — a workman or a professional — without saying, ‘I want to do something extra for Orchestra Hall,’” said Mr. Ganson. “Our efforts were aided by what people offered to do, not what they were necessarily contracted to do. The small things really added up.”

The State Historic Preservation Office was instrumental in jumpstarting the project, providing over $400,000 through a now-defunct preservation grant program to asses the building, develop a rehabilitation plan, upgrade plumbing, restore original seating, and refinish floors.

In 1975, the committee replaced the roof and repaired electrical and heating systems. It launched a $7 million, 14-year capital campaign. In 1979, the DSO finally became involved, celebrating the hall’s 60th anniversary with a concert on its mostly restored stage amid plaster dust, grave-looking cracks in the walls, and the nearly obliterated rococo designs that once illuminated the place. That concert convinced skeptics that saving Orchestra Hall was both worth it and possible.   

Ten years later, with its restoration almost complete, the DSO permanently relocated to the now-sparkling Orchestra Hall for its first season there in 33 years. A 19-year struggle concluded on a triumphant note.

Here Comes the Neighborhood
But saving Orchestra Hall turned out to be only the first movement of an increasingly ambitious and successful revitalization symphony for the building’s neighborhood.

A community-wide redevelopment effort had emerged immediately north of Orchestra Hall on both sides of Woodward Avenue, between Mack Avenue and I-94. Calling itself the University Cultural Center Association, a collaboration that began with just four area institutions in 1976 has since grown to includes 60 cultural, academic, medical, service, business, and neighborhood organizations working on the area’s physical redevelopment, maintenance, and promotion. Once notorious for its desolation, the area is now among the most vibrant in the city and has renamed itself Midtown Detroit. It includes Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Detroit Public Library, and numerous museums, art galleries, bookstores, restaurants, and residences.

In 2003, 16 UCCA members employ 25,596 people at places such as the DIA, the College for Creative Studies, Veteran’s Hospital, the Majestic Theater complex, and the Detroit Science Center. In 2002, 12 UCCA members reportedly drew two million visitors to their facilities.

Midtown Detroit now boasts nine historic districts. Many of the historic churches along Woodward Avenue have revived. Developers are rehabbing historic buildings into loft apartments, spearheaded by the successful rehabilitation of the Albert Kahn-designed Garfield Building. The project utilized more than $4 million in historic preservation tax credits and includes a Rite-Aid pharmacy that, without coaxing from the developers, would have instead been built nearby as a standard box store.

UCCA and the DIA purchased four Victorian homes and two carriage houses and turned them into an award-winning 42-room hotel, the Inn on Ferry Street. The $8 million project obtained approximately $1.3 million in state and federal historic preservation tax equities through Comerica and National City Banks.

Helping Hands
UCCA President Sue Mosey said most Midtown Detroit preservation efforts typically rely on three state programs that aid local historic preservation and community development efforts. Neighborhood Enterprise Zones freeze property taxes at 50 percent of the normal rate for new or improved old homes. The Obsolete Property Tax Abatement Program keeps taxes on restored commercial buildings to pre-restoration levels for 12 years. The Brownfield Investment Single Business Tax Credit grants tax credits for either renovating or demolishing dilapidated buildings.

Other historic preservation tax credits are also crucial to Midtown’s revitalization efforts. The 20-percent federal historic preservation tax credit rewards rehabilitation work on income-producing properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Michigan’s 25-percent state preservation tax credit aids the rehabilitation of residential or non-income-producing buildings that contribute to a designated local historic district. A 10-percent federal income tax credit supports the rehabbing of non-designated buildings built after 1930.

Local economic programs also help. The Real Estate Assistance Fund offers below-market-rate loans for properties deemed crucial to Detroit development. The Detroit Investment Fund has a $52 million private capital pool for business expansion. Detroit Renaissance provides pre-development assistance for proposed projects. Shorebank Enterprises offers loans to first-time homebuyers, small businesses, and real estate developers. Preservation Wayne, the Inner-City Ventures Fund, the Woodward Corridor Development Fund, and other local organizations are assisting revitalization efforts.

Full Circle
Orchestra Hall’s resurrection and all that has followed it now have the area brimming with ambitious projects and stunningly renovated places. Ms. Mosey estimated that, so far, new investment in Midtown Detroit totals $1.83 billion.

A significant amount of that investment — $220 million — flowed into completing Orchestra Hall’s restoring and building the Max from scratch.

The opening added 135,000 additional square feet of performance, rehearsal, and administrative space to a campus that now includes, in league with the Detroit Medical center, an office complex, restaurant, and parking deck. The former Orchestra Hall box office is now a sharp-looking symphony store; its expanded upper lobby has gained windows overlooking Woodward; and its new marquee replicates the long-lost original.

School Days
The DSO is now teamed up with the Detroit Public Schools and Detroit Public Television to help facilitate the building of the $122.5 million Detroit High School for the Fine, Performing & Communications Arts, which is going full bore literally right next door. The 1,200-student facility, to be completed in 2005, will be one of the first environmentally “green” school buildings in southeastern Michigan. It will house the facilities and staff for the school system’s radio station; staff from the local PBS affiliate will be among the schools faculty. With DSO musicians mentoring the music students, the school promises to be a vital educational institution.

“What makes it all work,” said Don Schmitt, partner in Diamond and Schmitt Architects, which managed the orchestra’s part of this big project, “is to value the heritage and history combined with modern amenities. We want to honor history, retain it, and use it as a vehicle to bring new facilities to the community.”

DSO President and Executive Director Emil Kang agreed.

“It is for everyone — rich, poor, urban, and suburban — and with the development of programming that is diverse,” he said. “Many of the gathering spaces create an open window that serves as a lantern — a glow of light to the outside.”

Charlene Crowell is the Institute’s policy specialist in Lansing. Reach her at charlene@mlui.org. This report is part of A Civic Gift: Historic Preservation, Community Reinvestment, and Smart Growth in Michigan, a 20-page report that was published in September in cooperation with the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office. To read, download, or order a printed copy of the entire report, please click here: http://mlui.org/growthmanagement/fullarticle.asp?fileid=1654. Jim Dulzo, the Institute’s managing editor, updated this article after attending the grand opening of the Max M. Fisher Music Center on October 11. He can be reached at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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