Nineteenth-century Cincinnati was known as the “Athens of the West,” rich in cultural traditions and boasting a musical tradition already half a century old. By 1870 the “Queen City” was the seventh largest in the United States and a major commercial and cultural center of the Midwest. This combination of capital and culture was reflected in the complex of musical auditorium and industrial halls of the Cincinnati Music Hall, an institutional anchor in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Inspired by the recent completion of the Paris Opera House and Richard Wagner’s Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, Cincinnati completed its own Music Hall in 1878. Today, it remains the home of Cincinnati’s symphony orchestra, pops orchestra, opera, ballet, and the May Festival.
Music Hall was the brainchild of local philanthropist Reuben Springer, who funded more than half of the project’s final cost of $500,000. Cincinnati had inaugurated its now world-famous May Festival in 1873. During the second May Festival in 1875 one evening’s performance was interrupted by a tremendous downpour that created quite a noise on the sheet metal roof of the old Saengerfest Halle. Springer, embarrassed by the incident, offered a challenge to the city’s residents: if they would raise funds to pay half the costs of a new hall, he would donate the rest. Early in 1876, four local architectural firms submitted designs for the project; in the spring Samuel Hannaford was awarded the commissioned to design a hall that would be completed in time to host the 1878 May Festival.
Construction began in October 1876 on an auditorium with a capacity of 5,228—the largest in the country until Chicago’s Auditorium Building was completed in 1889. The house could seat 4,428, while the stage was large enough to accommodate the Festival’s chorus of 700 and Thomas’s orchestra of 100. At the front of the auditorium stood a new organ with 6,277 pipes, also the largest in the country. On the third floor directly over the main entrance vestibule was a Recital Hall for chamber groups. Hannaford’s red brick exterior embodied a fashionable High Victorian Gothic style while also reflecting the latest European ideas about opera house design; it incorporated a monumental gabled flyspace, similar to those in Paris and Bayreuth. Following the Music Hall’s inaugural concert, which opened the Third Annual May Festival on May 14, 1878, construction commenced on the two flanking exhibition pavilions, one for art and one for industry. These were completed in time to renew Cincinnati’s premiere Industrial Exposition in the fall of 1879. The facility lived up to its promise the following year when the 1880 Democratic National Convention met in it and nominated Winfield S. Hancock to oppose Republican James A. Garfield.
The building has undergone numerous additions and restorations over its history. A ballroom was added in 1927 and renovated in 1998. In 1964, the Corbett Foundation, led by J. Ralph Corbett and Patricia Corbett, inaugurated a series of improvements to Music Hall that have spanned thirty years and have ranged from restoration of historic features to installation of new systems, equipment, and office upgrades. An extensive remodeling and modernization by George Schatz and Associates was undertaken between 1969 and 1975.
Cincinnati Music Hall Association. Golden Jubilee: Cincinnati Music Hall, 1878-1928. Cincinnati: CMHA, 1928.
Gifford, Robert Thomas. The Cincinnati Music Hall and Exposition Buildings.Ithaca: Cornell University Photo Services, 1973.
Miller, Zane, George Roth and Sandy Underwood. Cincinnati's Music Hall. Virginia Beach, VA: Jordan & Co., 1978.
Painter, Sue Ann. Architecture in Cincinnati, An Illustrated History of Designing and Building an American City. Photographs by Alice Weston. Additional text by Beth Sullebarger and Jayne Merkel. Athens: Ohio University Press in association with Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati, 2006.