By Eric Dundon
In a typical St. Louis Symphony Orchestra season, the “dark months” of July and August present an optimal time to maintain the orchestra’s historic home at Powell Hall.
This year is anything but typical, and even though no concerts have taken place at Powell Hall since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Powell Hall remains busy, with a longer opportunity to address issues that arise with a nearly 100-year-old building.
Erected in 1925 as the St. Louis Theatre, the building now known as Powell Hall was acquired by the St. Louis Symphony Society in 1966 through a $500,000 gift from Oscar Johnson, Jr., a longtime leader and benefactor of the Orchestra. Since its opening in November 1925, the St. Louis Theatre presented the best in live vaudeville shows as well as motion pictures.
Entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, Powell Hall has a storied history. It’s the job of the hard-working SLSO facilities team to maintain this historic treasure.
As Cynthia Schon, the SLSO’s long-time Director of Facilities said, “We are always in preventative and preservation mode.”
Schon notes that countless hours are devoted to preserving the finest details in the hall to maintain its signature elegant look.
It’s not uncommon for people to look up when they first enter Powell Hall’s auditorium. The plaster and filigree work on the ceiling and walls serve as a dazzling backdrop for many photos. During the pandemic, portions of the plaster were touched up and repaired to conserve the timeless appeal of the theater.
Schon said that crews looked for water damage to correct any issues and prevent plaster from weakening over time. Scaffolds were erected in the auditorium for crews to easily reach areas identified for repair. Fun fact: according to Schon, if the SLSO wanted to paint the entire interior of the auditorium at once, St. Louis’ entire inventory of scaffolding would be needed to complete the project. With ceilings 90 feet above the ground level, crews work with safety as the top priority.
Elsewhere in the auditorium, staff members rebuilt the custom crystal starburst lighting fixtures that are affixed to the front of the Grand Tier box level and mezzanine level. Schon said that sourcing intricate parts for the dozens of lighting fixtures in Powell Hall can be a challenge, and that Kalb Electric in St. Louis is the SLSO’s go-to source to track down unusual parts.
Outside of the building, the SLSO added ten handicapped parking spaces for Friday morning coffee concerts and Sunday afternoon concerts, addressing a long-held accessibility need. On other concert nights, the parking spaces will return to general use.
“It gives us some flexibility in accommodating our guests depending on the concert,” Schon said.
Tuckpointing work took place, a yearly project that expanded this year.
Other projects around the hall are not visible to audiences, but are necessary to conserve the historic space, from replacing flooring and repairing walls in the musicians’ lounge to air handler replacements and brightening the backstage area.
Additional work specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic has taken place. Drinking fountains have been dismantled and new hand sanitizers added. Notably, Schon said the front of house team recently placed markers throughout the public spaces to better diagram how guests will move through the hall efficiently when live events resume.
While the pandemic has caused a prolonged intermission for live events, the steady work of caring for historic Powell Hall has become even more special, something musicians, staff, and patrons can take comfort in.
“Our hall is one of our best assets. We work year-round to make sure our home feels like your home,” Schon said.
Eric Dundon is the SLSO's Public Relations Manager.