Friends of Music Hall: Stewards of Cincinnati’s Iconic Performance Venue

by Rick Pender

The Friends of Music Hall began in 1987 with a different name. It was founded as the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall, established to support the maintenance and improvement of Music Hall, Cincinnati’s iconic 1878 performance venue designed by renowned architect Samuel Hannaford. Over the years, the hall has served as the home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati May Festival, Cincinnati Opera, and Cincinnati Ballet — world-class arts organizations enhanced by their use of the magnificent venue, especially after its 1970 renovation funded by the generosity of Ralph and Patricia Corbett. The Corbetts also supported SPMH in its endeavors to preserve and celebrate Music Hall.

photo by Joanne Grueter

The passage of time necessitated another extensive round of renovation in the 21st century. A $145 million revitalization of the building from 2016 to 2018 renovated Springer Auditorium, the hall’s principal performance space; restored Corbett Tower; created new rooms from unused space; and made the building’s entry and lobby more welcoming.

photo by Joanne Grueter

SPMH played an important role in this process, contributing more than $5 million to the preservation and restoration of numerous historic details. Thanks to the organization, Corbett Tower was returned to its 19th-century grandeur by eliminating a dropped ceiling to reveal the room’s original coved ceiling and recreating exquisite decorative Victorian stencilwork. Windows with spectacular views of Washington Park were reopened. Research and support also led to restoration of the building façade’s red-and-black patterned brick exterior which had disappeared due to sandblasting.

photo by Philip Groshong Photography

SPMH also coordinated the restoration of beautiful art-carved wooden panels from the massive Hook & Hastings pipe organ that originally graced the Springer Auditorium stage. The panels today are on display in Music Hall’s Taft Suite.

photo by Philip Groshong Photography

SPMH refurbished the Albee Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ and installed it in the Ballroom, thanks to support from an anonymous donor. Regular concerts are now an added attraction.

The Cincinnati Preservation Association recognized SPMH’s role in Music Hall’s revitalization with a 2018 Rehabilitation Award. Cited were much-needed upgrades to contemporary standards while preserving many historical details and restoring original features, an effort that continues with plans to repair and restore the decorative finials on Music Hall’s many gables.

In light of Music Hall’s improvements, SPMH undertook a strategic analysis of its own mission, leading to a name change in 2019. Now known as the Friends of Music Hall, the organization’s commitment to preservation continues, but with an added emphasis and strategy for engaging more and more individuals to celebrate Cincinnati’s historic icon. The Friends’ mission is to preserve, improve, promote and provide education about Music Hall, perpetuating it as the premier cultural center of the region and as a National Historic Landmark of international significance.

photo by Joanne Grueter

Toward this end, the Friends of Music Hall offers interior and exterior tours of the building guided by insightful volunteers. It also provides speakers for public programs and schools. Additionally, thanks to painstaking historical research by volunteers, the organization’s website features a blog offering informative essays placing Music Hall’s history in the context of Cincinnati as an important American city in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Area residents who treasure this iconic building are invited to become members of the Friends of Music Hall. For more information: FriendsofMusicHall.org.

Rick Pender, a longtime arts journalist, is a member of the Friends of Music Hall board.