Leonard Bernstein and Eugene Ormandy conducted here. Ella Fitzgerald and Leontyne Price sang. Sergei Rachmaninoff and Jasha Heifetz played. And Robert Frost and Eleanor Roosevelt spoke. Hill Auditorium, which opened in Ann Arbor, MI, in 1913 and made the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, hosted many more of the greatest artists and thinkers.
Designed by Albert Kahn and Ernest Wilby with acoustics by Hugh Tallant, the 4,600 seat hall cost $282,000 to build. In 2004, it enjoyed a $38.6 million restoration/renovation, and although new lobbies and backstage areas add 16,820 square feet, the auditorium now seats only 3,531 max. But audiences and artists agree they didn't lose a thing.
For two decades, it was clear the building, last renovated in 1949, lacked aisle lights, sprinklers, and other basic safety equipment. And although the hall was perfect for small classical ensembles, the stage was too small for bigger orchestras and the antiquated electrical system inadequate for many other kinds of music.
“Architecturally and acoustically, the building was a gem,” says Jeffrey Kuras, producer and facilities manager who represented the University of Michigan on the project. “We wanted to restore it, and at the same time, we wanted to add the infrastructure to make the concert hall effective into the 21st century.” The challenge was to hide new systems within the old building and to restore the arts-and-crafts aesthetic the ‘49 renovation obscured.
In ‘49, crews removed wood seats, reducing seating to 4,164, and roofed over a skylight that had been plagued by water leakage and light-control problems, substituting simple fixtures for necklace lights. They splashed off-white paint over a rich palette. The mechanical systems, however, remained vintage 1913.
Undoing the massacre of ‘49 began in 2002, after a 1989 study, and involved two teams of architects. Albert Kahn Associates, Inc, successor to the original Kahn firm, handled most of the building systems modernization, while Quinn Evans Architects oversaw the design and restoration. After reviewing documents from the Kahn archives, architects tried over 250 paint samples to achieve the rich earth tones of the original palette. Lobbies, the auditorium, and even the restrooms now feature burgundy, blues, blue-grays, green-grays, deep red-browns, taupe, and gold and copper leaf. People say the hall feels smaller now. “I think it has to do with the detailing the new colors bring out and the warmth of the colors,” says Kuras.
Today, decorative plaster medallions frame the stage and outline the parabolic ceiling. More than 240 lights, once concealed behind paint, illuminate the house. “We brought back the historic medallion lights that highlight the decorative bands of plaster that define the room and the 136 globe lights that surround the restored interior laylight like a string of pearls,” says Michael L. Quinn, FAIA. The 2,000 square foot oval laylight is backlit by dimmable fluorescent fixtures, which also serve as worklights. A steel catwalk links backstage and front of house attics and allows technicians access to lighting fixtures.
Lighting fixtures installed throughout the lobbies and auditorium include period sconces and etched chandeliers that mask energy-efficient fluorescents. Restored stone and terrazzo floors in the main lobby give way to period carpeting, mainly in burgundy and blue, throughout the lobbies and auditorium. New seats, covered in a burgundy fabric, reflect the character of the original burnt umber wood-backed chairs. Patrons enjoy wider seats, with decorative end standards and aisle lights; those in wheelchairs find first-rate recessed spaces along aisles on two levels. Gold and copper leaf paint restores the original color of organ display pipes upstage; the organ's 7,599 speaking pipes occupy a humidity-controlled three-story space behind the stage.
Presenters agreed that the facility, jammed at intermission, needed more public gathering places and restrooms. Today, patrons ride in two new elevators with period cabs or head down one of two grand staircases to a new 2,700 square-foot oak and cherry wood lower lobby, with a concession area, display cases housing rare musical instruments, and restrooms finished with marble, oak and large gold leaf-framed mirrors; an expanded balcony lobby and new mezzanine lobby may be used for lectures and receptions.
The lower lobby space housed mechanical and electrical equipment and major utility lines until the Christman Company constructed an underground addition between Hill and adjacent classroom buildings and relocated everything. Huge new air handling/blower units also fit here, and ventilation air, once forced through holes in the floor under each level of seating, now moves evenly within the underfloor plena.
Buses pass the hall, and bells chime every 15 minutes in nearby Burton Tower, requiring that the auditorium be isolated from the outside as well. Scott Pfeiffer of Kirkegaard Associates led a team that created inner lobbies that serve as sound and light locks, protecting the auditorium from outside and lobby noise.
The stage suffered from a slapback echo, caused by years of painting and repainting absorptive treatments; attaching sound absorbent fabric-wrapped panels to plaster walls and adding molded decorative plaster to the face of the balcony now helps diffuse reflection to the stage. Slightly altering the shape of the under balcony where the rear and balcony wall meet also helped sound stay under the balcony.
One goal was to provide an audio system to reinforce speech and small ensembles — and to make this system invisible. Frans Swarte of Kirkegaard replaced a bulging central speaker cluster that used to project from the ceiling with three concealed speakers from EAW's new Digitally Steerable Array (DSA™) series, including a DSA 250 and DSA 240 to cover the orchestra and mezzanine, and one DSA 250 for the balcony. A Renkus Heinz subwoofer, mounted in the organ loft above the main loudspeakers, complements the system for very low frequencies.
One speaker array hides behind upstage organ pipes in vertical 11' columns, directing sound toward the main floor and mezzanine; on the stage lip, another DSA array, the 224, is a two way system with Neo8, Bohlender Graebener drivers for the higher frequencies and Audax AP100Z0 4" drivers for the lower frequencies, allowing coverage for the first two or three rows, and making it possible to aim to four and five. “For someone sitting in the 12th row, the natural source arrives first, the second is amplified from the stage lip line array, and the later sound comes from the big line array,” says Swarte. “At some point, there was some uncertainty about coverage of the last rows and mezzanine,” so he added a delay system, along with extra fill systems under balcony lips. An overhead sound system avoids walls and ceilings, so sound is dry and seems to come from the stage.
Quinn notes that in so large a hall it takes more than acoustics to create a sense of connection to the music. “If you have a good sight line, you think you can hear better,” he says, explaining that the warmer colors not only bring patrons closer to the past but also to the performers. By putting cherry-stained antique wood paneling behind the performers and a cherry stain on the stage floor, the architecture suggests a great violin, making musicians feel at home in the space as well.
Swarte says presenters want to bring in more road shows and do all kinds of music, but “they didn't want the burden of owning, installing, removing and storing equipment.” Roadshow panels and access ports in the floor for feeder and multi cable and audio snakes, seats on shoes and stretchers that come out as units for light and sound boards, and a 40' stage attachment that can be placed over the first three rows to create a 70' concert platform all make it easy to adapt the space for guests.
Theatre consultants at Fisher Dachs Associates handled the rigging and stage lighting, relocating the followspot booth to an upper balcony for better sight lines and replacing lighting which now includes an ETC Expression control board with ETCNet/DMX ports distributed throughout hall, 30 ETC Source Four 5 & 10 degree, and 24 ETC Source Four 10 degree (12 each HL & HR) at box booms. A new control booth houses video feed and a projection system.
The backstage area includes a new loading dock angled to accommodate a semi, and increased storage room. Safety features abound throughout.
The massive pillared exterior saw change, too. Crews restored the red terra cotta cornice and trim, and limestone facade while refurbishing metal grille work and windows. A geometric tapestry brick plaza fronts the main entrance, with anchors installed above entrance doors for replication of original marquees. Fixtures concealed in ornamental handrails provide uplight that highlights the architecture, an early introduction to the mix of function and beauty that audiences find within.