The Resurrection of Memorial Hall
Photography by Wes Battoclette
More than 35 years ago in the late 1970’s, Memorial Hall was described as a “forgotten jewel” by the Cincinnati Enquirer. Maybe “sleeping jewel” would have been a better description. The building was largely ignored and almost forgotten by the public for many years. It sat dark and seemingly abandoned in a neighborhood where many never ventured. Few people noticed Memorial Hall, much less entered the building. It was in effect a beauty, sleeping quietly until the time was right for it to awaken and come back to life.
And don’t forget the word “jewel” in that description from many years ago. This elegant, mid-sized building had been designed in 1908 by the prolific, British-born Cincinnati-educated, nationally known architect, Samuel Hannaford who designed many of the most important buildings in the city over a span of 50 years. Memorial Hall is today recognized as an outstanding example of the Beaux Arts period of art and architecture that thrived in the U.S. between 1880 and 1920. The proportions of the building, inside and out, are exquisite, and the materials used throughout were the finest available at the time. Fortunately Hamilton County and the Memorial Hall Society and generous citizens who cared for Memorial Hall during its slumbering years respected its jewel-like qualities and preserved them until the right time arrived for the building’s resurrection.
Fast forward to 2012. An expanded and revitalized board of trustees of the Cincinnati Memorial Hall Society, under the leadership of president Bill Baumann, determined the time was right to awaken the sleeping beauty. The board was inspired by transformation taking place in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and the revitalization of Washington Park with its underground garage, and seized the opportunity to bring Memorial Hall fully back to life.
With the approval and help of the Hamilton County Commissioners, and with their own resources, the trustees turned on the lights and opened the doors again and began to welcome the public back. Under the direction of new executive director, Teresa Summe-Haas, the building was cleaned and polished and cosmetically restored. Teresa was charged with managing the facility and programming an ever expanding variety of activities at Memorial Hall.
Apparently the public was ready for Memorial Hall’s re-entry into the arts and cultural life of the community. In the past two years over 350 different performances, events, meetings and weddings have been held at Memorial Hall attracting more than 60,000 people. To call this a resurrection is not an exaggeration!
Increased usage, however, made clear the limitations of this beautiful 107 year old building. The lack of air conditioning and inadequate restrooms are fundamental problems for general building use. Outdated lighting, equipment and technology limit use and prevent consistent programming of the highest caliber. In addition patrons have complained about uncomfortable seating and lack of amenities; performers comment about back stage limitations and caterers have suggested major upgrades to food service facilities. All of these issues need to be resolved for Memorial Hall to fully realize its potential today. As much as everyone loves the ambience of Memorial Hall and wants to preserve that, all agree that in addition to preservation the building needs modernization to meet the needs of current users and audiences. And that is what is going to happen!
So now, in 2015 Memorial Hall, alive and awake, is preparing for a new era in its long history. The building owner, Hamilton County has partnered with 3CDC and the Cincinnati Memorial Hall Society to lead a major renovation of Memorial Hall, under the design leadership of another renowned architect of this era, John Senhauser, FAIA. Drawings have been completed, and the building will close this summer for the $7.8 million renovation. The completion and grand opening are projected for the summer of 2016.
Hamilton County has contributed $1.5 million to the renovation project and other funds already secured by Cincinnati Memorial Hall Society and 3CDC include a $2 million state of Ohio capital grant, $2.1 million in federal and state tax credits and a generous $1 million private gift from the Annie W. and Elizabeth M. Anderson Foundation. In recognition of the importance of this keystone gift from these descendants of Nicholas Longworth and Lt. Colonel Richard Clough Anderson, Memorial Hall’s theater will be named the Annie W. and Elizabeth M. Anderson Theater and the stage will be named the Longworth-Anderson Stage.
The renovation is also receiving financial support from other leading private Cincinnati foundations including the Jacob G. Schmidlapp Trusts/Fifth Third Bank, trustee, the Robert Gould Foundation, the Frances R. Luther Charitable Trust and others. Fund raising for the renovation costs is ongoing.
Memorial Hall, when renovated, will be an even stronger contributor to Cincinnati’s highly regarded “arts district” around Washington Park, also including Music Hall, The School for the Creative and Performing Arts and other near-by theatres.
Upon reopening in the fall of 2016, 3CDC will have the day-to-day responsibility for the management and programming of Memorial Hall under a long-term lease with Hamilton County. Cincinnati Memorial Hall Society will assume an advisory role to review and make recommendations to the County on operations, programming and budgets developed by 3CDC. Memorial Hall Society will also continue to present its successful “Signature Series” and will nurture and grow the “Friends of Memorial Hall” organization for ongoing support of the building and programs.
The team of Hamilton County, 3CDC and the Cincinnati Memorial Hall Society looks forward to a long-term successful collaboration and to welcoming old and new friends who will treasure and enjoy this truly special building for another 100 years-or more.
Memorial Hall is located at 1225 Elm Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202. You can reach them at 513.381.0348 or visit their website at www.cincinnatimemorialhall.com.