The story of Carnegie Hall begins in the middle of the Atlantic.
In the spring of 1887, on board a ship traveling from New York to London, newlyweds Andrew Carnegie (the rich industrialist) and Louise Whitfield (daughter of a well-to-do New York merchant) were on their way to the groom's native Scotland for their honeymoon. Also on board was the 25-year-old Walter Damrosch, who had just finished his second season as conductor and musical director of the Symphony Society of New York and the Oratorio Society of New York, and was traveling to Europe for a summer of study with Hans von Bülow. Over the course of the voyage, the couple developed a friendship with Damrosch, inviting him to visit them in Scotland. It was there, at an estate called Kilgraston, that Damrosch discussed his vision for a new concert hall in New York City. Carnegie expressed interest in committing a portion of his enormous wealth to the project, and the idea of Carnegie Hall was born.
From this germ of an idea grew a legendary concert hall whose allure has drawn the world's greatest artists to its stages, setting the standard for excellence in music for more than a century. Gustav Mahler, Leopold Stokowski, Vladimir Horowitz, Maria Callas, Liza Minnelli, Paul Robeson, Bob Dylan—they all made their mark at Carnegie Hall. Andrew Carnegie proclaimed at the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone in 1890, "It is built to stand for ages, and during these ages it is probable that this Hall will intertwine itself with the history of our country." Indeed, some of the most prominent political figures, authors, and intellectuals have appeared at Carnegie Hall, from Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt to Mark Twain and Booker T. Washington. In addition to standing as the pinnacle of musical achievement, Carnegie Hall has been an integral player in the development of American history.
It was very clear from its auspicious beginnings that the hall that has now become legend was as pleasing to the ear as it is to the eye. It has long been a favorite venue for the world’s finest conductors and a tradition of remarkable pianists making Carnegie Hall a regular home remains very much alive today.
In 1925, following the death of Andrew Carnegie, New York City realtor Robert E. Simon bought Carnegie Hall. Over the years, Carnegie Hall became home to the New York Philharmonic who rented the hall for more than 100 nights per year. With the announcement of construction of what would become Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and the Philharmonic's impending move, Carnegie Hall's future was now in doubt.
In the 1950's with Robert Simon no longer able to afford keeping Carnegie Hall in operation, the hall was set for demolition. Various committees had been formed to save the Hall, but none of these groups had the political clout to make much of a difference. It was only at the 11th hour that the Citizens Committee for Carnegie Hall, headed by Isaac Stern, was able to stop the impending demolition. On June 30, 1960, as a result of special state legislation, New York City purchased Carnegie Hall for $5 million, and a new nonprofit organization called The Carnegie Hall Corporation was chartered.
Not only had Carnegie Hall been saved, it had been reborn as a public trust. Its corporation would manage and rent the concert hall, as had previous owners, but it would soon present its own events, as well. Carnegie Hall had entered a new phase in its history, free to serve its owners - - the people of New York City - - in new and unique ways. The Hall that founder Andrew Carnegie had hailed as an idea "which will affect the world" was poised to take an active role in shaping the destiny that Carnegie had predicted.
During the 1960s and '70s, the Carnegie Hall Corporation became increasingly active as a concert-presenting organization, hosting a number of international ensembles and soloists in the Main and Recital halls under its own artistic aegis. No genre was left untouched.
Then, in 1981, an architectural evaluation showed that Carnegie Hall was seriously in need of renovation. By 1985, Carnegie Hall celebrated the 25th anniversary of its "saving" by announcing a $50 million capital campaign committed to the restoration and renovation of the building.
With a roster of guest artists that included Isaac Stern, Vladimir Horowitz, Yo-Yo Ma, Marilyn Horne, and Frank Sinatra, and with Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta leading the New york Philharmonic, a December 15, 1986 concert gave musicians and audiences alike cause for celebration. The Hall had returned to service in pristine condition.
As Carnegie Hall's educational and artistic programs have evolved over the last 20 years, adapting to the needs of music lovers in New York City and around the world, the building itself underwent a significant change in 2003 with the opening of the Judy and Arthus Zankel Hall, a mid-size performance space dedicated to exploring adventurous new programs. Then, the most recent renovation came in 2010, to modernize backstage areas and create inspirational new spaces on the building's upper floors to house the Hall’s extensive and growing music-education programs.