The Henry and Edsel Ford Auditorium was designed in 1955 by the Detroit architectural firms of O’Dell, Hewlett, and Luckenbach and Crane, Kiehler and Kellogg. The semi-oval building was constructed of blue Swedish granite and white Vermont marble. The auditorium opened on October 14, 1956, as the new home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), and was a featured piece of the city of Detroit’s $100 million, 30-block, civic center development along the Detroit River. The nearly 3,000-seat auditorium was financed by the City of Detroit, the Ford family, and Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury automobile dealers from across the nation.
A reflecting pool and statuary by Marshall Fredericks were located in the gardens surrounding the building, and a 700-car parking garage was constructed beneath it.
After rehearsing for the first time in the new auditorium, Paul Paray, then-conductor of the DSO stated that the performance hall was “one of the finest in which I have ever performed.”
The first performance for the orchestra in its new home was on October 18, 1956. According to the New York Times, “so many wanted to attend that for the first time in its history the orchestra found that scalpers were selling tickets for one of its concerts for as high as $20 apiece.” That evening the orchestra played Beethoven’s The Consecration of the House, Paray’s own Joan of Arc Mass, Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, Strauss’ Don Juan, and Stravinsky’s Fireworks.
Ross Parmenter, a New York Times reporter, found the auditorium’s acoustics to be “lively,” – as if all of the instruments were “reproduced in super high fidelity” with “overbrilliant” climaxes.
In spite of Paray’s praise for the auditorium, the building proved to be an acoustical nightmare. Music critic Harold C. Schonberg found that “there seemed to be no reverberation in the hall, bass notes could not be heard, and there was no warmth in the sound.” Ultimately, the acoustics proved to “anything but merely passable” and not befitting the stature of “one of the country’s major orchestras.”
In 1987 the DSO announced it was returning to its former home, Orchestra Hall, which, interestingly, was designed by Crane, Kiehler and Kellogg, and which Pablo Casals called “an acoustic marvel, a gem among the world’s concert halls.” At the same time then-mayor Coleman A. Young announced his desire to raze the Ford Auditorium and construct a riverfront aquarium. Two years later, the renovations to Orchestra Hall were complete and the lights dimmed inside the Ford Auditorium, only to be relit during the mid-1990s when the building briefly served as a homeless shelter.
Twenty years after the DSO’s decision to leave the auditorium the City of Detroit announced plans for a redesigned riverfront, which included the demolition of the abandoned building. The economic turmoil of 2008 prevented demolition from occurring immediately, but in July 2011 excavators began their own symphony, a heterophonius lamento to the demise of a dream left unrealized.
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“Dedicate Ford Auditorium in Detroit Today.” Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, IL), Oct. 14, 1956.
“The Henry & Edsel Ford Memorial Auditorium.” Detroiturbex.com. Accessed July 14, 2011.
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Lee, Amy. “Detroit designs $50M Hart Plaza makeover.” The Detroit News (Detroit, MI), Jun. 16, 2007.
Neavling, Steve. “The Fat Lady finally sings for Ford Auditorium.” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), Jul. 9, 2011.
Nichols, Darren A. “Demolition of Ford Auditorium to clear way for amphitheater in Hart Plaza.” The Detroit News (Detroit, MI), Nov. 16, 2010.
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Parmenter, Ross. “Ford Auditorium Opens in Detroit.” New York Times (New York, NY), Oct. 19, 1956.
Schonberg, Harold C. “Detroit Acoustics are Compared with Philharmonic Hall.” Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL), Feb. 15, 1964.
Wilkerson, Israel. “Detroit Symphony Reclaims ‘Acoustical Marvel’ as Its Home.” New York Times (New York, NY), Mar. 2, 1987.