Geffen Halls $550 million makeover is fully funded

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Geffen Halls $550 million makeover is fully funded
Inside the main concert hall of David Geffen Hall which is currently filled with scaffolding as it undergoes its major renovation in New York on Feb. 6, 2022. The renovation project pushed forward, even as live performances in the city came to a standstill. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Javier C. Hernández

NEW YORK, NY.- Gone are the mustard-colored seats and shoebox interior of David Geffen Hall, the New York Philharmonic’s home at Lincoln Center. When the hall reopens this fall, wavy beechwood will wrap around the stage — and so will the audience, in seats upholstered in richly colored patterns evoking flower petals in motion.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, paralyzing the performing arts, the orchestra and center seized on the long shutdown to accelerate a planned makeover of Geffen Hall, gutting its main theater and reimagining its public spaces.

Now the long-delayed overhaul is almost complete. The project’s leaders announced Wednesday that they had raised their goal of $550 million to cover the cost of the renovation and that the hall will reopen to the public in October, a year and a half ahead of schedule.

“It’s not just a simple renovation where we repainted the walls and put down new carpet and chairs,” Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic’s president and CEO, said in an interview. “The whole space is transformed. It’s an entirely new hall and an entirely new feeling.”

With 2,200 seats (down from 2,738 in the old hall), Geffen Hall will have a more intimate feel and, if all goes as planned, improved acoustics. The project’s leaders hope the renovated hall will help galvanize New York’s performing arts scene during a difficult time as cultural institutions work to recover from the pandemic and win back audiences.

The pandemic cost the Philharmonic more than $27 million in anticipated ticket revenue; in the early days of the crisis, it was forced to reduce its staff of 135 by 40%, though many have since been rehired. The orchestra is in the midst of a roving season during the construction, shuttling mostly between Alice Tully Hall and the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center. It is also on the hunt for a replacement for its music director, Jaap van Zweden, who announced in September that he would step down in 2024.

The coronavirus crisis pushed the Philharmonic and the center to think more urgently about attracting new audiences, a challenge that orchestras have been grappling with for decades. The hall will include a variety of spaces meant to draw people in. In the lobby, there will be a 50-foot digital screen broadcasting concerts live. A new studio facing Broadway, with floor-to-ceiling windows, will offer passersby a glimpse of performances, rehearsals and other events.

“We’re opening ourselves up to New York so it doesn’t feel like a fortress,” Borda said. “It feels welcoming, inviting and vibrant.”

The renovation of the hall — which opened in 1962 as Philharmonic Hall and was called Avery Fisher Hall starting in 1976 — has been in the works for decades, repeatedly stalled by management woes and concerns about losing subscribers if the orchestra was exiled from its home for a prolonged period.

A $100 million gift from entertainment mogul David Geffen revived the project in 2015. Since then, the orchestra and center have raised an additional $450 million, though other naming gifts have not yet been announced.

The pandemic, which forced the hall to close in March 2020, offered a silver lining, giving the orchestra and the center a chance to accelerate the construction. They worked at breakneck speed, gutting the interior of the main theater, removing the box office and relocating the escalators.

Turmoil in the global supply chain made it harder to obtain some building materials. Surges in coronavirus cases also presented safety challenges at the construction site. But the project pushed forward, even as live performances in the city came to a standstill.

“It has become a real celebration of the resilience and creativity and diversity of our great city,” Henry Timms, president of Lincoln Center, said in an interview.

Timms added that there was still work ahead, including bringing the seats into the hall and painting the interior. The orchestra will begin playing in the space in August as part of an acoustic tuning process that is expected to last several weeks.

“No one is declaring this a triumph yet,” Timms said. “We’re not done yet.”

The acoustics of the hall, long derided by musicians and critics, have been a priority. The renovated space features beechwood walls molded into grooves to improve resonance. Seats will wrap around the stage, which has been moved forward 25 feet, providing a greater sense of intimacy.

The hall’s notoriously congested lobbies and other public spaces have been reimagined by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, which in 2019 joined a team that already included Diamond Schmitt Architects, which is working on the auditorium’s interior; Akustiks, an acoustical design firm; and Fisher Dachs Associates, a theater design firm.

The lobby has nearly doubled in size and will include a lounge, a bar and a restaurant.

The project’s leaders said the renovation has provided substantial benefits to the city’s economy, which has lagged behind the rest of the United States in its recovery. More than 6,000 jobs have been created, according to the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center; many have gone to businesses run by women or members of racial or ethnic minorities.

“We built through the pandemic because we knew New Yorkers needed jobs as much as they needed culture,” Katherine Farley, chair of Lincoln Center’s board, said in a statement.

The leaders of the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center announced the funding of the hall at a news conference Wednesday, joined by Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams. Adams said the project was a symbol of New York’s comeback amid the pandemic, drawing comparisons to the construction of the Empire State Building during the Great Depression.

“We’re going to come back bigger and better than ever,” he said.

Borda — who was hired as the Philharmonic’s president and CEO in 2017 after leading it in the 1990s, in large part because of her success completing the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 — said the renovation was long overdue. She added that the project had given the Philharmonic’s staff members and players a sense of hope during the difficult moments of the pandemic, when dozens of concerts were canceled and pay cuts were imposed.

“It’s emblematic of New York: real resilience and hanging in there,” she said. “It’s the reason I came back. I’ve always believed in this project.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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