Deborah Hefling, archivist of the Cleveland Orchestra, is the ideal guide since she’s steeped in the hall’s history.
We start at what was once Severance Hall’s front door, the Euclid Avenue entrance.The first time these doors opened in February of 1931 was a media event.
“The national press was all over it. They said that this is ‘the architectural gem of Cleveland.’ This was a very modern hall.
"When you approach the building from the outside, it looks very classical, and it’s a Georgian Revival style. That was done so that it matched the rest of the buildings already in existence in University Circle. But as soon as you open the front doors, you’re in a magical world of a modern building in 1931.”
Tribute to his late wife
Just inside is the bronze bust of the man who made it all possible.
“It was cast one year after his death,” says Hefling. “So this is a lovely memorial to John.”
John Long Severance’s father was treasurer of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. The younger Severance decided in 1928 that the Cleveland Orchestra needed a permanent home, so he and his wife Elizabeth donated a million dollars to help build it.
“Shortly thereafter, they left for their home in Pasadena, Calif., where they spent the winters, and unfortunately Elizabeth died of a stroke quite suddenly and John came back a widower and grieving. So he really devoted the rest of his time -- he lived five years more -- to making this a memorial to Elizabeth. And there are certain things that we’ll see throughout the building that remind us of that. For example her favorite flower was the lotus.”
Hefling points to the lotus in the pattern of the floor of the Grand Foyer and "on the ceiling you see the lotus on the medallion around the light fixtures.”
There are lotuses, Hefling points out, even on the banisters in the railings of the staircases.
“You have the papyrus motif, which is very strong decorative element in the Egyptian Revival style, and then also you see the lotus, very small lotuses in the same pattern.”
The architects of Cleveland's public spaces
Walker and Weeks, architects of the Cleveland Public Library, Public Auditorium and the Federal Reserve Building as well as Severance Hall, also designed the tall torchieres in the grand foyer.
“They have the design of the papyrus stem, and then the top is representing an un-bloomed lotus.”
Besides using her favorite flower as a motif, the architects paid tribute to John Severance’s late wife in a different way in the main hall.
“This very lacy pattern that you see in the ceiling, legend has it that the architects, Walker and Weeks, when they were designing this ceiling were inspired by photographs of the wedding dress of Elizabeth Severance.”
Egyptian Revival and art deco
Other Cleveland artists contributed to Walker and Weeks masterpiece.
Each mural in the grand foyer, designed by Elsa Vickshaw, a teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Art, represents a family of instruments.
“For example you’ll see percussion emphasis in one mural or wind instrument pipes in another mural, and each of the murals that contain people have them dressed in the Egyptian style.”
Because at the time everyone was fascinated by the discovery of the intact tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
The man who discovered it, Howard Carter, was a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art and a great friend of John Severance.
"Members of the Severance family actually went to Egypt and Carter personally showed them inside King Tut’s tomb.”
Along with King Tut, art deco was all the rage at the time, and that involved aluminum.
Another friend of John Severance made sure Severance Hall had plenty of that metal. Charles Martin Hall, founder of Alcoa, was an Oberlin classmate of John Long Severance.
Severance was apparently a good sport as well as a philanthropist. Archivist Hefling points to a tiny flaw in the floor of the grand foyer.
“If you look very closely you’ll see that there’s a 3/4-inch bolt in the floor, which the Italian marble workers when they were creating that beautiful terrazzo floor intentionally placed.”
It was a practical joke.
“John Severance made daily rounds of Severance Hall as it was being built, and he was quite a stickler for detail and perfection. So they decided to play a trick on him, and see if he would notice this tiny screw placed in this very large terrazzo floor.
"John probably did notice it, and I think he chuckled to himself rather than say, ‘Here’s an imperfection. This must change.’ I think he let them win that one.”
Severance Hall was a triumph for John Severance and for Cleveland.
But even with all its eye-popping Egyptian Revival, art deco and modernist visuals, there was a problem when the hall first opened.
The acoustics were not ideal. The original stage was not modern like the rest of the building.
That has changed over time along with the science of acoustics.
“For example, in 1958 we have what many people will remember as the ‘Szell Shell.’ That was the first big change to the stage box. And then the current stage was done in 2000. It’s called the Dohnanyi stage, and this is the first time we really have a match architecturally, a marriage between the look of the stage and the look of the rest of the hall. It now matches aesthetically, and it’s a fantastic acoustic as well.”
There were 1,844 seats in the main concert hall originally. Now there are 2,100 plush blue-velvet seats to sink into as you listen to one of the world’s finest orchestras.
A smaller hall for chamber performances
The atmosphere is very different in Reinberger Chamber Hall.
“A smaller hall seating about 460 people, and it really follows more the European salon style, more intimate. The murals that you see are to indicate or to give the feeling that you’re in someone’s private music salon enjoying lovely chamber music and looking out the windows at their gardens.”
Reinberger looks much the same as it did in 1931 although its leafy green murals have faded some.
“People used to smoke in concert halls if you remember, and so a nicotine film was removed when it was cleaned, but that’s the extent of the restoration.”
We leave the chamber hall and enter the Smith Lobby.
“This was part of the renovation work in 2000 and so this is one of the newer spaces in Severance Hall.”
This space was originally a motorcade for chauffeurs.
“Limousines would drive through the door at that end of the room and enter through here. The indoor driveway for valet service ended in 1970.
“I think the transportation method of coming to Severance Hall changed over time,” says Hefling. “Fewer limos, let’s face it.”
Streetcars also took many of its first patrons to Severance Hall, and there was little need for a parking lot in the beginning.
“During the Depression people were encouraged to find out who of their neighbors were coming to Severance Hall at the same time, and they should carpool.”
The orchestra founder’s handiwork
Archivist Debra Hefling returns to the intimate Reinberger Chamber Hall to conclude our tour.
She wants to point out a tiny detail most patrons overlook. The numbers on all the green velvet seats are daintily embroidered. Cleveland Orchestra founder Adele Prentiss Hughes and her friends sewed them.
“When we did the renovation and reupholstered the seats they were of course re-applied. This is a bit of history that you just can’t replace.
"And I don’t see how she could be the founder and the general manager of an orchestra, a major orchestra, and embroider seat numbers. She was quite a woman.”
It must have been quite a night for that remarkable woman on Feb. 5, 1931 when Nikolai Sokoloff led the orchestra in the music of Bach and Brahms for the very first Severance Hall performance.
Public Tour Dates during the 2015-16 Season:
Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015 — at noon, 12:30 and 1:00 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015 — at noon, 12:30 and 1:00 p.m.
Sunday, March 6, 2016 — at noon, 12:30 and 1:00 p.m.
Sunday, April 10, 2016 — at noon, 12:30 and 1:00 p.m.
Sunday, April 24, 2016 — at noon, 12:30 and 1:00 p.m.
Sunday, May 22, 2016 — at noon, 12:30 and 1:00 p.m.