×

1891: What It Was Like When Carnegie Hall Opened In New York For The First Time

1800s | May 5, 2020

1895: View of Carnegie Hall on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street, New York City. (Photo by Museum of the City of New York/Byron Collection/Getty Images)

If it weren't for a chance encounter on a cruise ship, New York City's famed Carnegie Hall may have never been built. Today, Carnegie Hall is one of the most prestigious concert venues in the world, but while it was being built, many people believed that the concert hall was doomed to fail. Still, Carnegie Hall opened with pomp and fanfare on May 5, 1891, complete with a concert featuring Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Let's look at the inception, building, and opening of the world-famous Carnegie Hall. 

Andrew Carnegie. (adamsmith.org)

A Chance Encounter

Scottish-American businessman, steel industrialist, and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie remained a bachelor until he was 51 years old, by which time he'd amassed the kind of fortune that leads one's name to be synonymous with wealth for generations. He married a 30-year-old woman named Louise Whitfield in 1887, and for their honeymoon, the couple took a cruise to Scotland. On board the ship, Andrew Carnegie became fast friends with a fellow passenger, Walter Damrosch, the conductor of the Oratorio Society of New York. During their conversations, Damrosch mentioned to Carnegie that he needed a permanent home for his organization. Once they landed in Scotland, Carnegie invited Damrosch to join him at his Scottish estate to discuss the possibility of building a new, modern concert hall in New York City. 

Carnegie Hall hosts about 250 shows per year. (myscena.org)

An Inexperienced Architect

Construction on Carnegie Hall started in 1890, but most people in New York had doubts about the success of the venture. For one thing, the architect who was hired to draw up the plans for the building, William Burnet Tuthill, had never designed a concert hall before. He also never designed one again. The fact that Carnegie Hall was his one and only music venue suggests that he could have built a world of amazing acoustics if things had gone differently.

Opening night of Carnegie Hall in 1891. (americasbesthistory.com)

A Poor Location?

New Yorkers were also sure that the site of Carnegie Hall would be a detriment to its success. Its uptown location at 881 Seventh Avenue, just two blocks south of Central Park, was thought to be too far from the city's hottest entertainment districts, all of which were downtown. No one, said the project’s detractors, would travel so far for a show. 

Construction of Carnegie Hall. (twitter.com)

Construction Starts On Carnegie Hall

On May 13, 1890, Louise Carnegie helped to lay the cornerstone of Carnegie Hall. The construction of the building, which was performed by the Isaac A. Hopper and Company construction crew, cost $1.1 million, nearly all of which came directly from the Carnegie family. In fact, Carnegie's steel mills in New Jersey and Pennsylvania supplied the raw material for the steel trusses of the structure's ceiling. 

Carnegie Hall in the 1920s. (sagakay.weebly.com)

A Multi-Functional Venue

Carnegie Hall doesn't have just one performance space. There are, in fact, smaller recital halls within the building. Today, the L-shaped building houses the Isaac Stern Auditorium, the Weill Recital Hall, and the Zankel Hall. In the spring of 1891, before the main concert hall was even complete, concerts were held in these recital halls. The Oratorio Society was the first group to perform in one of the recital halls.

Russian conductor Pyotr Tchaikovsky kicked off the opening ceremonies at Carnegie Hall. (rbth.com)

Opening Night

Carnegie Hall was completed in May 1891, and a five-day celebration was planned. On the official opening night, Andrew Carnegie arranged for famed composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker fame) to travel all the way from Russia to lead the festivities. Another concert during the opening celebration of Carnegie Hall featured well-known Italian tenor Italo Campanini, among many other top names.

Andrew Carnegie paid for most of the construction costs of the venue. (forbes.com)

Carnegie Hall's Cultural Impact

Despite concerns that Carnegie Hall would fail, the concert venue soon became the talk of the town. Tchaikovsky's performance sparked a renewed interest in live concerts in New York, and performers from around the world flocked to New York to perform at the venue Tchaikovsky praised for its beautiful, clear acoustics. 

Carnegie Hall has remained a prestigious concert venue throughout its 129-year history. (newyorkcliche.com)

A Significant Venue

Many of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century and beyond have graced the stage at Carnegie Hall in the years since it opened in 1891. Leonard Bernstein even made his conducting debut there. During the jazz era, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Harry Belafonte, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, and Shirley Bassey all performed on its vaunted stages, while thinkers like Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington presented lectures at Carnegie Hall. In the 1950s and 1960s, rock and roll entertainers such as the Beatles, Bill Haley and the Comets, Tina Turner, the Beach Boys, and Led Zeppelin rocked the Hall.

To this day, Carnegie Hall remains a major performance venue in New York City. Each year, it sees about 250 shows. 

Tags: 1800s | music | victorian era

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.