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Severance Hall

Severance Hall, the permanent home of the Cleveland Orchestra, was built between 1929 and 1931. Its completion represents over $7 million in donations from both the Cleveland public and philanthropists, as well as a land grant from the Western Reserve Society. Influential people such as John D. Rockefeller, Dudley Blossom, and William Bingham III donated huge sums of money toward the Hall, but the man who shouldered the brunt of the cost was John Long Severance. To Severance, the Hall was akin to the Taj Mahal. Upon its completion in 1931, Severance Hall was dedicated to Elizabeth "Bessie" Dewitt Severance, the beloved wife of John L. Severance, who died shortly after the couple pledged the original $1 million to the cause.

It was decided that the exterior of Severance Hall should closely resemble the Art Museum (situated on the north side of Wade Park), but would have an interior unlike any ever seen before. The result was a Georgian/Neo-Classical style building built of Ohio sandstone and Indiana limestone, in complementary shades of white and off-white. Inside is an eclectic mix of inspiration from Victorian, Egyptian, classical and ornamental styles and a recurring motif that reflected Mrs. Severance's love of the lotus flower. From the ornate silver flowering and blue jewel tones in the grand auditorium, to the gold and bronze leaf design in the atrium, nature is very much at home in this "musical wonder of wood and steel."

The burden of building and planning the Hall was given to the architectural firm Walker and Weeks. Construction alone cost around $2.6 million, with the remainder of the $7 million dedicated to furnishing, decoration, acoustic technology, and the endowment fund that would keep the Hall both beautiful and state of the art. The building included a concert hall seating nearly 2,000, a chamber music hall seating 400, a pipe organ elevator as well as the 6,025-pipe Ernest Skinner organ, a recording studio, a grand foyer, and interestingly an internal automobile drive-way leading to the parking lot. The recording studio was equipped with radio broadcasting capabilities, which helped the Cleveland Orchestra become known across the country. The drive-way was closed and turned into a restaurant in 1941. In 1958, the stage was completely rebuilt to adjust the acoustics of the hall. A stage shell was built to reflect sound, and the concert hall was stripped of most wall hangings and some of the carpeting, resulting in a richer sound. These renovations were deemed a great success.

However, even as the Cleveland Orchestra continued to grow into a world-renowned ensemble, Severance Hall began to fall into disrepair. The rehearsal spaces, as well as the public spaces, did not live up to the reputation of the orchestra or to the expectations of patrons and musicians. In 1997, a second renovation project was started to renew and expand the facilities of Severance Hall and restore some of the original detailing in the concert hall. The original organ was also restored and reinstalled in the concert hall. Designed by David M. Schwarz Architectural Services Inc. of Washington, D.C., and completed in January 2000, the project expanded the size of Severance Hall to 2,100 seats in the Concert Hall and 400 seats in the Chamber Hall.

In 2001 the National Trust for Historic Preservation presented Severance Hall with the National Preservation Honor Award, adding to earlier recognition by the Cleveland Landmarks Commission and the National Register of Historic Places. On September 30, 2021, the Cleveland Orchestra announced that the main hall would be renamed the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Concert Hall following a $50 million grant from the Cleveland-based Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation.

Video

A Glorious Interior Architect Jim Gibans describes why Severance Hall is his favorite building in Cleveland. Source: CSU Center for Public History + Digital Humanities

Audio

One of the Finest in the Country Neil Distad describes the finery of Severance Hall Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection
It's the Inside That's Magic Jim Gibans explains why Severance Hall is his favorite building in Cleveland Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Images

Cleveland Orchestra, 1946 The Cleveland Orchestra performs under George Szell at Severance Hall in 1946. Szell was musical director from 1946 to 1970 and was the driving force behind the 1958 renovation. He is also credited with creating the sound the Cleveland Orchestra is now known for. Source: Cleveland State Library Special Collections Date: 1946
Severance Hall and the Fine Arts Garden, 1940. University Circle was chosen as the location of the new concert hall. The area was and still is the center of Cleveland's art culture, with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Institute of Art. It also has a high concentration of educational institutions, including the Cleveland Institute of Music, one of the country's leading music schools. Source: Cleveland State Library Special Collections Date: 1940
Severance Hall and CMA, ca. 1940 One of Severance's requests in the design of the new concert hall was that the exterior had a similar design to that of the Cleveland Museum of Art, located just across the street. The artist's rendition of the two buildings shows the similarities. Source: Cleveland State Library Special Collections Date: 1940
Orchestra Season Opener, 1957 Spectators at the Cleveland Orchestra's season opening performance in 1957. The foyer of the hall is one of the striking features of the hall. Designed in an Egyptian revival style, marble columns and various murals decorate the space. The lotus blossom design is a prominent decoration in the room. Source: Cleveland State Library Special Collections Date: 1957
Mural At Severance Hall As part of the original design, Cleveland artist Elsa Vick Shaw was commissioned to create fourteen murals. These murals, in the Egpytian revival style, were installed in Severance Hall's foyer. Shaw also did work for Cowan Pottery and other local studios. Source: Cleveland State Library Special Collections
Aerial View, 1953 Severance Hall, designed by the leading Cleveland architectural firm of the time, Walker & Weeks, features a main concert hall was well as a smaller hall for recitals. When it opened in 1931, it was recognized as one of the most up to date and modern concert halls in the country. Source: Cleveland State Library Special Collections Date: 1953
Exterior At Night The exterior of the building was designed in a neoclassical style, as per John Severance's request. Mr. Severance wanted to create a an elegant building that used the finest materials possible and had all of the advances and technology of the time. At the opening gala concert, Dudley S. Blossom Sr, the vice president of the Musical Arts Association, declared "in the last analysis, a gift to all the people of Cleveland. It is they who are the real beneficiary; it is they who are going to come here day after day and year after year to enjoy the comfort, the charm, and the loveliness of this beautiful hall." Source: Cleveland State University Library Special Collections

Location

11001 Euclid Ave, Cleveland, OH 44106

Metadata

Janelle Daling and Robin Meiksins, “Severance Hall,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 29, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/31.