Historic Structures

Orchestra Hall (Paradise Theatre), Detroit Michigan

Date added: March 25, 2011 Categories: Michigan Theater

The building's first owner was the Orchestra Hall Corporation. The Detroit Trust Company acted as trustee for that corporation from 1919 to 1941, when the building was seized by the city for non-payment of taxes.

In 1963 the hall was purchased by the Nederlander Theatre Corporation from Max Osnos, a local businessman who had sought to sell it for over a year.

In 1970 the building was acquired by Gino's,a nationwide fast-service restaurant chain,which planned to demolish it. An immediate public outcry and the work of several concerned citizens led to organizing the Save Orchestra Hall Committee, which raised funds to purchase the building and created a public interest in saving Orchestra Hall

An orchestra was first organized in 1872 with forty members. As a repertory orchestra this group ceased activity in 1910, and the management was organized as the Detroit Orchestral Association, which, under the direction of N. J. Corey, sponsored a series of subscription concerts by visiting orchestras and conductors. In 1910, thanks to prominent women of Detroit, a new symphony orchestra was formed. From the University of Michigan's School of Music at Ann Arbor, from Detroit music conservatories, and from the city's theatre and cafe orchestras, sixty new members were selected. The women raised $800 to finance eight rehearsals for the first concert.

The new group first appeared in March 1914 under the baton of Weston Gales. The first season consisted of but six concerts, held in the afternoon because there were insufficient funds to pay the evening rental of the Detroit Opera House. Then, donations by William H. Murphy and Horace Dodge made it possible to establish the orchestra on a more permanent basis, and Gales continued as conductor until 1918, when dissension and a fresh lack of money brought about his resignation.

Ossip Gabrilowitsch, a Russian-born pianist and conductor whose excellent musicianship was internationally recognized, had appeared as guest conductor with Detroit's orchestra on his American tour. With reorganization pending, after Gales' departure from Detroit, efforts were made to keep Gabrilowitsch as a permanent conductor of the new group. A committee, broaching the subject to Gabrilowitsch, was informed by the artist that such buildings as the orchestra would be obliged to perform in, the Armory or the Arcadia Ballroom, were totally unsuited to the performance of serious music, and that he could not accept such a position under those circumstances. However, he gave a provisional acceptance on the condition that Detroit provide a proper home and concert hall for the orchestra, in time for the next concert season. Then, continuing on his concert tour, Gabrilovitsch left the orchestra's fate in the city's hands.

The directors of the Orchestral Association decided that they had no choice but to build a new hall. A hastily assembled building committee selected C. Howard Crane as the architect. Within two weeks the committee had purchased the site of old Westminster Presbyterian Church and raised half a million dollars in building funds. Crane's general contractor, prepared to work day and night to rush the building to completion, promised that it would be finished on schedule. A telegram was sent to Gabrilowitsch on tour, informing him that a new 2,000 seat concert hall would be ready on time. The contractor further showed his zeal by starting demolition of the church at a corner of the roof while a final wedding ceremony was still going on inside.

If the clearing of the site was done with dispatch, the construction was equally swift. The time from the moment of the removal of the first shovel full of earth for the foundations of Orchestra Hall to the moment when concert goers in evening dress walked under the marquee on its opening night was just four months and 17 days. This inaugural concert for Orchestra Hall took place on October 23, 1919, before an audience made up of Detroit's leading citizens, and members of musical organizations throughout the State. Some workmen, busy in the building until concert time, left quietly through the back door.

The hall itself was somewhat less than resplendent, as the decorative work had not yet been completed. However, the critical acclaim accorded the opening program gave ample testimony to the skill of Ossip Gabrilowitsch as conductor of the musically ambitious program.

The scores for Beethoven's Dedication of the House Overture had failed to arrive in time for rehearsal, and Gabrilowitsch used instead Weber's Overture to Oberon to open the concert. The baton was then turned over to Associate Conductor Victor Kolar, as Gabrilowitsch and English pianist Harold Bauer performed Mozart's Concerto in E Flat for two pianos and orchestra. Following the intermission, the two pianists were joined on stage by Olga Samaroff at a third piano, presenting Bach's Concerto in C Major for three pianos and orchestra. The program was concluded with Beethoven's C Minor Symphony. "Never in the city's history," according to the Michigan Historical Commission, had such a galaxy of stars been gathered together as those to assist in the dedication." Gahrilowitsch, with only two weeks of rehearsal time available, produced cooperation and unanimity of ensemble in the newly-formed 90-player orchestra that promised well for the future.

Ossip Gabrilowitsch made the musical reputation of the Detroit symphony Orchestra and raised Detroit's level of music appreciation. Both of these achievements were made possible by his insistence upon having a proper concert hall in which to work and upon the excellence of the hall created for him, and for Detroit, by C. Howard Crane. During the Gabrilowitsch years. Orchestra Hall had 268 Detroit premiers 18 American premiers, and three world premiers. Among the artists appearing in concert were Enrico Caruso Pablo Casals, Mischa Elman, George Gershwin, Jascha Heifetz, Dame Myra Hess, Joseph Hofmann, Vladimir Horowitz, Wanda Landowska, Lotte Lehman, Gregor Piatigorsky, Serge Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arthur Rubinstein, Igor Stravinsky, and Efrem Zimbalist. In 1926 Gabrilowltsch founded the National Youth Orchestra (now the National Arts Academy of Interlochen, Michigan) in Orchestra Hall, and in 1931 Orchestra Hall became the site of the first national radio broadcast of live symphonic music. When Ossip Gabrilovitsch died in 1936, his funeral was held in Orchestra Hall, the building that had been the price of his coming to Detroit and that was one of his greatest contributions to the city.

After the death of Gabrilowitsch, the orchestra was led by Assistant Conductor Victor Kolar until the appointment of Franco Ghione of La Scala Opera in Milan as Conductor. From 1934 to 1939 Ford's Sunday Evening Hour was broadcast live from the Orchestra Hall Stage. However, the Great Depression and competition from subsidized auditoria in the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Masonic Temple soon made it impossible to maintain Orchestra Hall, and in 1939 the orchestra moved to the Masonic Temple. Briefly, the orchestra had its own hall again, the Wilson Theatre renamed Music Hall. In 1951 the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was finally reorganized on a sound financial basis, and after five years of performances in the Masonic Temple under the baton of Paul Paray, the Orchestra moved to the Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium.

Orchestra Hall had been designed with motion picture projection and complete stage facilities and had been used occasionally for moving pictures, Burton Holmes travel lectures, and other programs. Upon the departure of the Orchestra in 1939, it became a moving picture and vaudeville house first renamed the Town Theatre and later the Paradise. The latter name derived from "Paradise Valley," a night club district of Detroit. The renamed Orchestra Hall specialized in concerts by leading jazz musicians including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Cab Galloway, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Hines, Eillie Holiday, and the Ink Spots. With the decline of vaudeville and the rise of television, the Paradise Theatre was acquired by a black congregation and renamed the Church of Our Prayer.

Phonograph records of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Gabrilovitsch had been very successfully made by Victor in 1928 and released in 1929. In 1951 Mercury Records began a series of long-playing recordings of major American orchestras and in 1953 made a recording contract with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The acoustics of the cavernous Masonic Temple were unsatisfactory for recording purposes, and the Music Hall proved to be even less so. Remembering the Gabrilowitsch recordings made in Orchestra Hall, the producer arranged for the use of the Orchestra's former home. The excellent acoustics of the building were admirably suitable for recording, and symphonic music again resounded there until the last recording was made in 1956. The Church of Our Prayer had departed during that period, but recordings had continued until falling plaster made continued use of the building too hazardous.

Orchestra Hall stood empty and boarded up until 1970, except for a brief interlude beginning in 1963, when it was purchased by the Nederlander Theatre Corporation, which began restoration after receiving a Federal redevelopment loan of $350,000 in 1964 but soon abandoned the attempt. In 1970 Gino's Restaurant Corporation bought the property. Demolition was begun, but with the laudable cooperation of the new owners it was suspended until the Save Orchestra Hall Committee (SOH) had raised enough money to buy the building. SOH established a continuing fund-raising operation for the preservation and restoration of Orchestra Hall. In 1971 Orchestra Hall was entered on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1972 the American Film Festival awarded second prize to a short subject filmed by SOH and titled We Have Temporarily Lost Our Sound. A sequel to this film starring Orchestra Hall emphasizes the Paradise Theatre phase of its history.

Orchestra Hall is a large, well-proportioned, almost rectilinear block. Its regularity is broken only by the upward projection of the stage loft's skylight at the west end, by a central Greek cruciform penthouse with metal ventilators, and by the volume of the low truss roof, which, when seen from a distance, still rises only slightly above the tile coping of the parapet walls.

The front portion of the building is three stories high. However, as the rear portion of the balcony and the attic rise well above the level of the third floor offices, it is more closely equivalent to five stories altogether.

The building originally had widely projecting planar iron and glass marquees suspended over the front entrances and along the Parsons Street side to shelter the side exits.

The major part of the building's volume is taken up by the auditorium, which occupies the entire width of the building in its central section. To the west of the seating area is the stage, and to the east, behind the auditorium, are the lobbies. In the upper stories of the building, above the lobbies, are the former offices of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Association.

The main entrance opens into a shallow vestibule beyond which is the main lobby. The lobby is quasi-elliptical, having curved ends but straight sides. The front and rear walls each have five pairs of doors, and the paneled end walls, articulated by plain pilasters, each have a round-headed archway through which the marble stairs ascend. The marble bases of the wooden pilasters vary in height to compensate for the slight slope of the marble floor. The broad, flat main ceiling area is elliptical and has a deep rinceau frieze and delicate modillion cornice. A small but ornamental metal chandelier is suspended at the center of the ellipse.

Directly above the main lobby is a rectangular upper lobby, an area at the auditorium mezzanine level but unconnected with it. The ends of this lobby are almost entirely occupied by the stair runs descending to the main lobby and ascending to the balcony. The side walls are ornamented by rectangular panels above and below an unmarked dado line. They are articulated by pilaster responds behind freestanding square Renaissance Ionic fluted piers and by antae. The floor is marble. The flat ceiling has shallow coffers, some containing ventilating grilles, and abuts heavy beams "supported" on the four piers and four antae. The beam soffits are ornamented with parallel rows of guilloches. A relatively small chandelier hangs from the central ceiling coffer.

The auditorium is almost rectangular in plan, its basic shape being modified by side walls that curve inward somewhat to join the proscenium wall. The rear half of the auditorium contains a deep balcony, below which is a horseshoe-shaped mezzanine of individually lobed boxes that sweep around the perimeter of the hall, extending forward from the line of the balcony rail. The floor is gently bowled, and the ceiling is composed of three flat levels, which step upward toward the rear of the auditorium space.

The side walls of the auditorium are of plaster, scored and painted in imitation of limestone ashlar. Their principal architectural treatment occurs in their three-bayed, curved portions forward of the balcony. Each of these areas is divided horizontally by a row of six projecting mezzanine boxes, stepped downward toward the proscenium, their soffits equidistant from the sloping floor below.

Below the boxes in the two forward bays are rectangular door openings, framed by simple architraves, and leading to emergency exits. The rear bay holds a double-arched, false window opening, set within a rectangular enframement topped by a frieze and cornice, and decorated with projecting bosses. In each of the four lower forward wall segments is a large circular ornamental ventilation grille.

Above the mezzanine boxes, each bay contains a high arched opening, surrounded by a wide frame containing delicate foliate ornament in low relief, and marked by rosettes at the spring and apex points of the arch. The wall areas between the arches contain pendant lighting fixtures high above which ornamental cartouches are applied. Above the row of arches is a frieze of alternating wide and narrow rinceau panels, a wide panel occurring above each of the three arches. Above the frieze is a denticulated modillion cornice, and surmounting the cornice is a deeper band of panels corresponding to those in the frieze and forming a kind of parapet motif. The narrow vertical panels are ornamented with floral garlands, the wide, horizontal panels with a large wreath-encircled cartouche flanked by winged cherubs. On the left auditorium wall the forward two wide panels in both frieze and parapet motif are organ grilles on the right, all three are grilles.

The cornice and upper range of panels continue across the front, or proscenium wall, of the auditorium. The proscenium arch is elliptical, ornamented with a wide cove containing floral baskets, with a central cartouche at the keystone. Around the inner edge of the cove is a heavy rope molding. Triangular corner spandrel panels between the cornice and the curve of the proscenium arch are framed with bands containing foliate ornament and projecting bosses.

The side walls of the auditorium above the balcony are also treated in imitation of ashlar, and are articulated by recessed panels. The band of ornamental panels above the cornice line in the forward portion of the room is almost equal in height to the first of two upward steps of the ceiling. The two bays which make up this central section of the side walls are crowned with plaster relief panels ornamented with gryphons and lyres. These panels are continued across the rear-facing surface of the ceiling step, where they function as ventilating grilles over ducts.

The second upward step of the ceiling is shallower than the first, and the upper edge of the rear four wall bays is ornamented with a correspondingly narrower band of simple recessed panels, which also are carried across the reveal of the ceiling step. The rear wall of the auditorium contains two bays of recessed panels to either side of the central projection and spotlight booth.

The auditorium ceiling consists of three flat sections, stepped upward toward the rear of the hall. The forward section, occupying the area in front of the balcony, is divided into a pattern of rectangular and curved but only lightly coffered panels by projecting ornamental moldings. From the central panel is suspended a wide flat circular chandelier. The central area of the ceiling is divided into three equal bays, each containing a central octagonal panel surrounded by small square panels. From each principal panel hangs a disk-like lighting fixture, duplicating at smaller scale the design of the main chandelier. The rear portion of the ceiling is even simpler in character, the panels all being rectangular, and the lighting disks hung closer to the ceiling plane.

The mezzanine level of the theatre has an independent entrance from the street. Its seating is arranged in a series of 28 boxes, each separated from its neighbor by a low paneled wooden partition, and fronted by a curved parapet paneled on the inside and ornamented with a garlanded cartouche on the outside. The row of curved fasciae, stepped gently upward across the side walls and curving across the rear center of the auditorium,is one of the hall's handsomest design features. As the mezzanine does not connect with the principal lobby spaces, it is provided with a spacious lounge area to its rear, where side and rear walls are grained in imitation of wood paneling. An ornamental, non-functioning fireplace with a marble mantelpiece is centered on the rear wall.

The balcony seating is divided horizontally by a wide aisle into upper and lower sections, in turn divided above into five sections by six stepped aisles, and below into four sections by five stepped aisles. The balcony parapet is a gentle concave curve, treated in a simple modification of the mezzanine parapet. Three rigid light fixtures are set into and are slightly extruded from the balcony ceiling.

The stage was originally equipped to handle all types of production, but is particularly suited to concert use because of its shallow wings, which provide little space for scenery storage. There is a high fly gallery at either end of the stage, and at the north end there are four tiers of dressing rooms.

Large organ chambers at either side of the auditorium are accessible from the fly galleries flanking the stage. Although the organ has been removed, some of its original framing members remain in place. The sound entered the auditorium through the frieze and parapet motif grilles and the upper portions of the side wall arches.

The orchestra pit is of particularly interesting construction, consisting of three sections which span the width of the stage apron. The outer two sections are forward of the apron, and rest on independent screw-type elevators. The rear portion is under the apron, and provides auxiliary space at the lower pit level. All or any part of the pit may be elevated to stage level for large orchestral or choral productions; to the floor level for additional seating for chamber music; or left at the lower level to provide a Bayreuth-style pit, large enough for the fullest opera orchestra. Remarkably flexible, this orchestra pit would do justice to the most modern concert hall.

The building's large pipe organ was built by the Casavant Freres of Ste. Hyacinthe, Quebec, and was installed by the Hebert Organ Company in Detroit. Designed as a concert instrument, it was classical in its specifications and did not follow the growing trend of the day for imitative orchestral voicing and novelty sound effects in theatre organs. It was used to accompany motion pictures also, shown when the concert schedule permitted. The pipework of the organ was located in a chamber on the right of the auditorium, above and behind the box seats, and controlled by a portable console on stage. The organ was dedicated on March 17, 1920, with a performance of Camille Saint-Saens' Symphony No. 3 for Organ, played by Marcel Dupre, then of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, and supported by Ossip Gabrilowitsch and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. After the orchestra's move to the Masonic Temple, the organ was relocated in a Methodist Church in west Detroit.