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St. Louis Symphony celebrates 50th anniversary of its Powell Hall home

This photo shows the St. Louis Symphony performing in Powell Hall in 1968.
St. Louis Symphony

In 1966, the St. Louis Symphony scrambled to find a venue for a publicized concert after plans fell through to play at the Kiel Opera House, now the Peabody Opera House. They ended up at the St. Louis Theater on Grand Boulevard.

For the musicians, the theater space just felt right, Maureen Byrne, according to director of diversity and community affairs.

“People just kind of went, ‘Whoa, this is pretty nice,’” Byrne said.

Soon afterward, the symphony bought and renovated the building, renamed it Powell Hall, and performed the first official concert there in January 1968. On Saturday, the 137-year-old symphony will mark a milestone anniversary with an open house.

“What we’re celebrating is 50 years in the orchestra’s first permanent home,” Byrne said.

Achieving stability

The symphony performs at Powell Hall in 2016.
Credit Provided | St. Louis Symphony
The symphony performs at Powell Hall in 2016.

The symphony needed $4 million to buy and rehab the building — $30 million in today’s dollars, Byrne said. The Ford Foundation provided half and a board member and other supporters offered $1 million.  The remaining $1 million came from former St. Louis nurse-anesthetist Helen Lamb Powell, the widow of Walter Powell, the first U.S. representative for the International Skating Union.

Not every major U.S. orchestra has a permanent home. Having a secure base helped the symphony get through some tumultuous times. During the past 15 years, the institution has faced financial woes and an interrupted 2005 season.

“The stability of having a place you own and not being worried about next month’s rent is huge benefit for this organization,” she said.

Owning Powell Hall has also allowed the symphony to create and sustain programs like the youth orchestra and In Unison chorus, according to Byrne.

“It gives you the leverage to think beyond, ‘Where are we going to play our next concert?’ And then you can think, then, on to other ways that you can deploy your musicians’ force,” she said.

Working on diversity

About 90 musicians play in the orchestra, the same number as in 1968. Fifty years ago, 16 percent of the musicians were women. Today, that figure is 53 percent.

Cellist Alvin McCall has been with the St. Louis Symphony since 1994.
Credit Provided | St. Louis Symphony
Cellist Alvin McCall has been with the St. Louis Symphony since 1994.

Achieving racial diversity is a more elusive goal. The orchestra includes nearly a dozen members from countries outside the United States, including China and Japan. It conducts blind auditions. Still, only one musician, cellist Alvin McCall, is African-American.

There are numerous reasons for the paucity of black musicians, Byrne said, including the high cost of music education, out of reach for many African-American families. To cultivate young black musicians, current symphony programs include scholarships for black music students, Byrne said.

“I’m hoping in the next 50 years, Alvin won’t be sitting on stage by himself,” Byrne said.

Theopen house includes a “Sound of Music” movie showing and an “instrument petting zoo,” where children can try out horns, strings and other instruments.

An exhibition at the St. Louis Public Library, Central Library, displays many historical items from the Symphony's past, including a program from the inaugural performance at Powell Hall and a book written by a child about attending a concert.

If you go:

St. Louis Symphony Open House

When: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 20.Check the schedule for specific events

Where: Powell Hall, 718 N. Grand Blvd.

Admission: Free. (“Sound of Music” showing at 7 p.m. costs $5.)

Powell Hall at 50 Library Exhibition

When: Monday-Saturday through March 17

Where: St. Louis Public Library, Central Library, 1301 Olive St.

Admission: Free

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.