Creating, and Re-creating, Lincoln Center

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1962

Lincoln Square in Manhattan was badly blighted in 1955. An informal committee that met to discuss what to do with it quickly elected John Rockefeller III as chairman. Rockefeller and his entire family became convinced that what the area—and New York City generally—really needed was a musical center. So he began raising funds to build one. Altogether, Rockefeller would raise nearly half of the $185 million used for the project, with various Rockefeller foundations and family members contributing heavily. The first building was 1962’s Philharmonic Hall, renamed Avery Fisher Hall in 1973 after a donor, and then David Geffen Hall after a renovating donor. The New York State Theater followed in 1964, and the Metropolitan Opera House opened in 1966. The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was incorporated as home of the New York Philharmonic, Juilliard School, Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, and dozens of other performing-arts organizations.

Philanthropy played as impressive a role in later expansions of Lincoln Center as it had in the founding. By the 1980s, the center had run out of space, and between nervous neighbors, inflexible zoning codes, and high costs, expansion in its crowded neighborhood was a long shot. Frederick Rose was a successful real-estate developer who served on the center’s board. He loved music, and frequently entertained his fellow members on the piano after board meetings. Rose also loved making things happen, and volunteered to pick a team of lawyers, architects, and consultants who could overcome the barriers to expansion.

Rose handled negotiations with property owners and the city, and raised $100 million, including giving more than $15 million himself. By 1991, an impressive array of new facilities was complete, including the 31-story Rose Building that allowed the center’s performing tenants new room. This work was completed remarkably quickly and efficiently. In a further 2004 expansion, Frederick Rose Hall was named in honor of the man who gave not just money but expertise to achieve what others could not.

By the turn of the millennium, the State Theater of New York, one of the center’s original buildings, was showing its age. David Koch, one of the wealthiest businessmen in America and a major philanthropist, had been attending ballets and concerts at the theater since it was built. Inspired by financier Stephen Schwarzman’s recently announced $100-million donation to the New York Public Library, Koch offered to donate $100 million to renovate and maintain the State Theater. The project was completed on schedule in 2009.

Then in 2015, the cycle of modernizing improvements began again. Entertainment mogul David Geffen announced he was donating $100 million to help renovate the symphony hall. The New York Philharmonic’s home had long since been surpassed in acoustic quality, and the new construction, scheduled to begin in 2019, will solve that.