Cincy Sets the Stage: Arts 'level up' with newly renovated Music Hall

When it comes to prominence of the arts, Cincinnati has had bragging rights for a long time. But even on our enviable historic foundation, we’re about to level up, as the gamers say. What’s been great in the past will soon be mind-blowing, with the imminent October re-opening of Music Hall. That’s when the results of a spectacular $135 million renovation will be unveiled for the public. Closed since May 2016, Music Hall will return in a dazzling new form in just a dozen weeks.

Cincinnati’s art world will undergo a tectonic change as it welcomes area residents back to the historic Over-the-Rhine home of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Cincinnati Ballet, Cincinnati Opera and Cincinnati May Festival. In its refurbished and expanded form, it’s sure to invoke jealousy in cities across America and around the world.

The Society for the Preservation of Music Hall is the 1878 building’s heart and soul. Lisa Allison, senior marketing manager at The Kroger Co. and SPMH’s vice president for awareness and marketing, says, "This is the culmination of an incredible collaboration of committed and generous individuals, the Music Hall Revitalization Corporation, Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation and Cincinnati Arts Association, as well as the professional staffs of our incomparable arts organizations. We’re especially proud that SPMH’s deeply committed board of volunteers has played such a central role in restoring Music Hall."

There has been much discussion and news coverage regarding the many extensive improvements readying Music Hall for 21st-century audiences. Those include physical changes to Springer Auditorium, the building’s central performance space, offering more flexible staging for varied performances, as well as reconfigured seating more suited to contemporary audiences; reopened windows long covered with bricks; a more streamlined and inviting lobby; enhanced access from floor to floor via escalators and elevators; added spaces for concessions, rehearsing, events and other gatherings; and a significant expansion of restroom facilities.

Thanks to SPMH, the crown jewel of the renovation will surely be Corbett Tower, two floors directly above the main lobby. It has long served as a gathering space for dinners, lectures and events, but it’s décor is from the 1970s, including a drop ceiling made for a dated and dreary atmosphere. It has been dramatically restored, with many details enhanced, thanks to $3 million of added funding from SPMH.

Board member and committed volunteer Thea Tjepkema has led the charge, assiduously researching and suggesting ways to enhance the space. "The word 'preservation' is in our name, so that’s our mission," she says.

The "new" Corbett Tower again has its 30-foot coved ceiling, illuminated by natural light. SPMH has funded several aspects of the space, including recreated stenciling by John Rettig from the late 19th century.

Three arched semicircular windows below the building's memorable rose window now have had tracery — lacy metal patterns, recreated from Samuel Hannaford’s original architectural drawings. Thirty art-carved, cherry wood panels that formerly graced a historic organ installed on Music Hall’s stage in 1878 have been reacquired and will become a museum-quality display for the Taft Suite, a new donor lounge. Three crystal chandeliers that previously graced the main lobby will provide illumination.

But SPMH’s project support is not limited to Corbett Tower. In fact, its support of many details of Music Hall’s renovation, both inside and out, has elevated the organization to the sixth most significant private supporter of changes to Music Hall.

One aspect readily visible to anyone passing Music Hall on Elm Street is the black-brick patterning on the façade. Most of Music Hall was constructed of common Ohio orange clay brick (Tjepkema says there are 3.8 million of them). But the façade of pressed red brick from Philadelphia was originally decorated with patterns using black bricks — diamonds, basket weaves and banding — adding beauty and variety to the original Gothic Revival design. After years of deterioration and sandblasting, these patterns had faded, but with SPMH support, they’re beautifully visible again.

SPMH is also making it possible to restore or replace "bouquet finials," ornamental structures on the peaks of Music Hall's front façade, as well as "cresting," ornate iron fence work on the roof ridges featuring representations of some of the building’s original activities: lyres representing music for the central hall; gears and hammers for the south hall, originally a space for machinery exhibitions; and flowers dripping off dormers on the north hall, which initially featured agriculture shows.

The building’s interior has also benefited from SPMH’s attention to detail. "Allegory of the Arts," Springer Auditorium’s ornate 1905 ceiling mural by Arthur Thomas, is brightened with a new coat of varnish. The mural, featuring Zeus surrounded by the Muses playing instruments, provides a backdrop for the hall’s glorious crystal chandelier.

Another SPMH enhancement is the manufacture of 14 doors, modeled after original doors from 1878 found in the south tower. They will grace the entrances to Springer Auditorium and elsewhere. The expense to build these doors, as with other elements that were beyond the scope of the basic plan of renovation, has been borne by SPMH.

Tjepkema has been a tireless volunteer digging into the details of Victorian construction and architecture, as well as steadfastly promoting preservation to restore Music Hall’s original glory. Tjepkema is energetic and hardworking, but she’s eager to recruit more volunteers to her cause, especially young professionals with enthusiasm for history and architecture.

"We offer exciting volunteer opportunities for anyone interested in history, art and architecture," says SPMH’s Lisa Allison. "They can become tour guides or help with our ongoing research. They are the first wave of future generations of arts lovers who will benefit from this incredible restoration project."

More information about SPMH volunteer opportunities, membership and an exciting upcoming event can be found at or by calling 513-744-3293.

The first inside look at the beautifully restored hall will happen in a public celebration on Saturday, Oct. 7. SPMH is working hand-in-hand with ArtsWave, the fundraising organization that supports the city’s abundant and diverse arts community, to offer five hours of activities for citizens to experience the hall at their convenience. There will be a fashion display of opera and ballet costumes and a room-sized cake. In the ballroom will be individual portraits of the musicians of the Cincinnati Symphony. Knowledgeable SPMH guides stationed throughout the hall will share Music Hall’s history and explain how it’s ready to accommodate future generations of performances.

According to ArtsWave president Alecia Kintner, “The grand re-opening of Music Hall is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our community to celebrate our thriving arts organizations — their legacy and their future — along with this iconic building and its long-awaited restoration."

Anyone especially eager to see Corbett Tower should make note of SPMH’s special event, Music Hall Unwrapped, set for Wednesday, Oct. 11, from 4:30 to 8 p.m. It will be an evening of behind-the-scenes guided tours by preservationists, light bites, free soft drinks and a cash bar, and music by the Faux Frenchmen, Cincinnati’s stylish Gypsy swing band. Tickets are $30; attendees will receive a Music Hall ornament and a full-year membership to SPMH. This is a perfect opportunity to learn more about SPMH and its volunteer activities.

Of course it’s time for everyone to be excited. But the best news is that Music Hall has been restored as a performing arts facility without equal, one that will serve future generations for years to come. Leveling up, indeed. The sky’s the limit.

Support for this Cincy Sets the Stage series is provided by the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall (SPMH).


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Rick Pender is an Over-the-Rhine resident with many years of writing, editing, fundraising and public relations experience. He is the theater critic and contributing editor at CityBeat and a regular contributor to WVXU's "Around Cincinnati." Follow him on Twitter @PenderRick.