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A 'Grande Dame' Rejuvenated: Tully Hall Reopens

After nearly 40 years of curtain calls, standing ovations, and gala soirees, Alice Tully Hall, an iconic landmark for the New York performing-arts community, has undergone a complete overhaul. The hall is set to reopen on February 22 (after being closed for renovations since the end of April 2007), and the architects at Diller Scofidio + Renfro and FXFOWLE—the two firms responsible for the massive overhaul of Lincoln Center, including the Juilliard building and Alice Tully Hall—are hoping they have succeeded in preserving the essence, functionality, and charm of this cultural landmark while making a bold architectural statement.

The 18-month renovation of Alice Tully Hall has yielded much needed architectural, acoustical, and accessibility improvements.

(Photo by Iwan Baan)

A view of the new Alice Tully Hall and the Juilliard expansion at twilight, looking northwest from Columbus Avenue and 65th Street, in December 2008.

(Photo by Iwan Baan)

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"The return of a renovated Alice Tully Hall is a great moment for the New York musical community and especially for all of us at Juilliard," says the School's dean and provost, Ara Guzelimian. "We're all greatly looking forward to bringing Tully Hall back to a very full and lively life as a musical home for us."

Back in the late 1950s, when Lincoln Center was first conceived, the Upper West Side was not the well-groomed neighborhood of today. It consisted of tenement housing, where crime was commonplace and a strong infrastructure was in short supply. It was the ideal backdrop for the gang rivalries depicted in the musical West Side Story, the movie version of which was shot on location where Lincoln Center now stands. In fact, demolition was halted to allow for filmmakers to capture those now-iconic shots.

The neighborhood was in desperate need of a facelift, so the city set out on a 10-year journey to revitalize the area and create an artistic community that was to become the envy of the country. Lincoln Center was envisioned as an "island of culture," writes Time magazine contributor Richard Lacayo, protected from the city around it. Through the generous support of Miss Tully, an avid lover of chamber music, her hall was one of the facilities built as part of the original complex, and home to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. It was completed on September 11, 1969, and boasted 1,087 seats with extra legroom—a personal request of Miss Tully.

As it neared its 40th anniversary, Alice Tully Hall, which hosts some 750 performances annually, had begun to show signs of age. There was a need to improve the lobby, hall, and amenities, and peel away the once-defensive architectural relationship it had to the city around it. "While still showcasing the iconic importance of the beloved hall, we needed to ensure the facilities were competitive, accessible, and had a little more intimacy," explains Betsy Vorce, vice president for public relations of Lincoln enter for the Performing Arts. Part of the total design concept, she adds, "was to turn 65th Street into a street of the arts"—accomplished with a new glass lobby, wider sidewalks, information kiosks, and public cafés offering food and drinks at more competitive prices. As the second-largest construction project in Manhattan after Ground Zero, the Lincoln Center development planning began in 2002; Alice Tully Hall itself was allotted an 18-month construction period.

"Alice Tully was a good hall, but not a great hall," said architect Charles Renfro, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, in an interview. A former clarinetist who attended the Sheppard School of Music at Rice University, Renfro—one of the principals of the architectural firm responsible for the design—understood the need for an expanded and more user-friendly space, something that would provide both musicians and audiences with an acoustically superior and more attractive performance venue.

Part of that process involved what Renfro calls "realigning the hall." A new interior lining, made of sustainably harvested Moabi wood, was designed to channel the sound into the middle of the room with the added bonus of a streamlined appearance. "In so doing, we have made a much sexier hall to look at and listen to," says Renfro. This same material forms the walls and ceiling, creating a uniform "skin" that he likens to a violin soundboard, carved and molded to resonate in just the right way.

The redesigned auditorium also boasts a mechanical, 15-foot stage extension designed so the performers are more embedded in the audience by being thrust into the middle of the room. The hall includes custom theater seats in the original seating plan, adjustable house lighting that glows from behind custom-molded, translucent wood-veneer walls, and an automated screen for film events. Other improvements include a greatly expanded 5,000-square-foot outer lobby with a larger box office, bar, and concession space open to the public throughout the day. There is a mezzanine-level donor room for special events. The theater's inner lobby will offer more restrooms and additional concession options, while the new glass-curtain wall will provide concertgoers with uninterrupted views of the urban landscape on West 65th Street.

For the artists, there will be a new warm-up/rehearsal room as well as expanded dressing/choral spaces, extended stage wings, and a bigger freight elevator to accommodate larger stage equipment for a variety of presentations. The organ, which was carefully dismantled and removed prior to demolition, is undergoing an extensive refurbishing and will not return until 2010.

The renovation has not been without its challenges, including designing around inaccurate 1969 architectural plans, among other things. Despite relatively minor setbacks, the project has remained on schedule. "[Lincoln Center] has 37 separate projects, all of which are scheduled to open on time and magnificently—a tribute to the development team and Lincoln Center," says Vorce.

The two-week-long celebration of opening concerts begins on February 22, when the Juilliard Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, will be among the performers on the very first program. The concert will span six centuries of music, from Bach to Bartok, Stravinsky, and Golijov. Other notable performers will include the Emerson String Quartet, pianist Leon Fleisher, early-music specialist Jordi Savall, and soprano Montserrat Figueras. The orchestra also performs Messaien's Des canyons aux étoiles on February 26; Juilliard students and faculty members present a concert of Schubert's chamber music on February 25. (See the Calendar of Events for details.)

One cannot help but be mesmerized by the hall's now-elevated stature as neighbor to Avery Fisher Hall and the recently expanded Juilliard School. "Juilliard has had a major presence at Alice Tully Hall since its opening, and will continue to be one of the most frequent concert presenters in the hall," observes Nicholas Saunders, Juilliard's director of concert operations. "Orchestral, chamber music, jazz, faculty concerts, and even dance performances have taken place at Tully, and it will be fantastic to return to a new and beautiful hall that has been such a mainstay of Juilliard's concert experience." The reinvigorated Alice Tully Hall is a creative vision that welcomes curiosity and yearns for New Yorkers to step inside and meet the hall again for the very first time.

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