The Cleveland Orchestra, today one of the top symphonies in America, had humble beginnings. It was founded in 1918 by a group of local citizens led by Adella Prentiss Hughes, a Cleveland pianist. It began its existence as a traveling orchestra, performing throughout the eastern U.S., because scheduling conflicts and an inadequate facility prevented it from performing often in the city’s Masonic Auditorium.
In the 1920s, John Severance, president of the orchestra’s board, offered more than a million dollars toward the construction of a building to permanently house the orchestra. The project was of particular interest to his wife, Elisabeth, and when she died in 1928, Severance poured himself into the project in her honor. He ended up giving nearly $3 million of the total $7-million cost. Severance built a whole series of industrial companies and distributed his wealth liberally to bolster not only the orchestra but also the Cleveland Museum of Art, several universities, and a medical school and hospital in Korea.
The orchestra’s new home was designed to be compatible with the traditional architecture surrounding its site in Cleveland’s beautiful University Circle area. Severance Hall was built with a Georgian exterior, and incorporated a variety of more modern styles inside. When it opened and the Cleveland Orchestra gave its first concert to rave reviews in February 1931, it was one of the most advanced concert facilities in America. As the facility aged, it had its acoustics upgraded in 1958 (at the demand of music director George Szell, who brought the orchestra to prominence). The hall later underwent a two-year, $36-million restoration that ended in 2000. By then, the Cleveland Orchestra had become one of the top orchestras in the country, beloved not only regionally but across the globe thanks to recordings and broadcast performances. And Severance Hall, which put the ensemble on its path to prominence, is commonly considered one of the most beautiful concert halls in the country.
- Severance Hall, History, clevelandorchestra.com/plan-your-visit/severance-hall/building-history
- “The Severances: One Family’s Cultural Legacy to Cleveland,” Cleveland Plain-Dealer, cleveland.com/arts/index.ssf/2011/02/the_severances_one_familys_leg.html