The Incredible Revitalization of Memorial Hall




Teresa Summe-Haas, executive director of Memorial Hall, and Bill Baumann, president of the Memorial Hall Society board of trustees

Photography by Wes Battoclette

Memorial Hall, the 1908 Beaux Arts building designed by famous Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford, prospered in the first half of the 20th century. By the late 1970s, however, it was described in an Enquirer article as a “forgotten jewel.” The building had fallen into disuse as the last of the veterans of the Civil War and Spanish-American War had died and its historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood began to decline.

It’s been nearly 40 years, but revitalization activities begun two years ago indicate Memorial Hall is far from forgotten. Rather, it is gaining increased recognition as one of Cincinnati’s most important civic and arts treasures.

Bill Baumann, president of the Memorial Hall Society board of trustees, summed up the situation. “In many ways, ours was an audacious plan. A previous revitalization in the early 1990s had not been sustained. And, Memorial Hall was virtually closed with many needs and only a few events being held here. There was also a looming question: was there a need for this building and would future use be sufficient to justify the costs to revitalize operations and modernize the building?”

Inspired by an improving Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, the trustees gained renewed confidence and a new vision. They saw the opportunity to transition Memorial Hall, with its intimate, acoustically sound performance hall and strategic location adjacent to Music Hall, from an underutilized facility into an active cultural center with an offering of performing arts, film, lectures and art exhibitions, while also providing facilities for meetings, weddings and other events.

Key programming would be produced by Memorial Hall, but additional programming would be provided by other local arts and civic organizations. Jim Fitzgerald, a trustee who is knowledgeable about the arts in Cincinnati, said, “We felt there was a real need for this venue with its intimate stage, mid-size 600-seat capacity and its sizable rooms for pre-concert receptions and social activities. There isn’t another comparable facility in Cincinnati.”

The trustees presented their revitalization plan to the Hamilton County Commissioners in mid-2012; by the end of the year trustees were moving forward on key elements:

• Expansion of its board to gain needed expertise.

• Hiring Teresa Summe-Haas, an experienced, entrepreneurial manager, as the venue’s first executive director in decades.

• Restoring damaged areas and purchasing new audio-visual and catering equipment, plus dining chairs and tables.

• Rebranding, including creating a first-ever logo and mission statement: “A place for Arts, Culture and Community.”

• Undertaking a reorganization of operations and launching business development and social media activities.

The results indicate there is a need for this building. In the past 18 months, nearly 50,000 guests attended more than 225 performances, events and meetings, including the Midpoint Music Festival, FotoFocus, TEDx, Constella Festival, Music Now, Exhale Dance Tribe, Vocal Arts Ensemble and Cincinnati Opera’s New Works.

A “Signature Series” of all-inclusive events described by Summe-Haas as an innovative concept of music, culture and cuisine were also created. Two events last year sold out, and this year’s kickoff event, ”Broadway & Bordeaux,” was an outstanding success. “Blues & Brews” is next up January 30 followed by “Bourbon & Boots” April 24.

The Friends of Memorial Hall has been established as a way for Cincinnatians to be part of the revitalization story. The group has more than 250 members already.

“While Memorial Hall has been watched over and protected for more than a century, the building needs modernization to meet the needs of today’s users and audience,” says trustee Ken Jones, who is an architect. The Memorial Hall Society is working with Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) and Hamilton County, the owners of the building, to develop a plan and secure funding for a major renovation expected to begin this summer.

Baumann tells a story about Louis Langree, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, shortly after he arrived in Cincinnati. While attending a performance at Memorial Hall, Langree commented that Cincinnati was fortunate to have these two “temples of music” standing side-by-side.

Baumann said, “Louis’ comment really gets to the heart of why Memorial Hall is, in a contemporary sense, so valuable. It’s a perfect complement to Music Hall and the city’s other big theaters. When it’s renovated, Memorial Hall will play an even stronger contributing role in creating a world-class arts district around Washington Park along with Music Hall, the School for Creative and Performing Arts and other nearby theaters.” 

 

Memorial Hall is locatead at 1225 Elm Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202. You can reach them at 513.381.0348 or visit their website at cincinnatimemorialhall.com