For decades, Lincoln Center has struggled to execute a plan to redesign the concert hall the New York Philharmonic calls home. While the institution as a whole has undergone a $1.2 billion redevelopment, the theater makeover has faced financial road bumps and repeated delays.
But on Wednesday, Lincoln Center announced the much-anticipated redevelopment will be completed by this fall — and it's actually ahead of schedule.
"We brought it forward two years, we built through the pandemic, we accelerated the project, and that took a lot of New York energy to get that job done," said Henry Timms, president and CEO of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in a telephone interview earlier this week.
With a $550M budget in place, the redesigned David Geffen Hall is officially scheduled to reopen in October 2022. The theater has been redesigned to greatly improve the acoustics for a variety of musical performances. Spacious new public spaces are meant to encourage more interaction among visitors; and new performance spaces will host different kinds of events.
"We're feeling really hopeful that this will be something which will be really exciting to New York," Timms told Gothamist. "It will be really inspiring for New Yorkers, and it will be a sign of confidence in the future of our city."
Katherine Farley, the chair of the board of directors at Lincoln Center, added that she hopes Geffen Hall will become NYC's new "cultural hub, teeming with excitement 18 hours a day — a place where New Yorkers will drop by just to see what’s happening, knowing they will find welcoming public spaces offering dynamic free entertainment, food, fun, art and culture in addition to the superb performances of the New York Philharmonic."
At a press conference unveiling the new hall early Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Eric Adams praised Lincoln Center for completing the project under budget and on time, and commended Governor Kathy Hochul, also present, for her leadership during the pandemic. Hochul, Adams said, understands we must build "not only buildings but bridges, so we can come together as one and be a philharmonic in life. Beautiful music, playing on one symphony and one note. Far too often people have been out of tune. It's time to tune our industries — not only in education, [but also] economy, mental health — and the arts is the way to do so."
Originally opened in 1962, Philharmonic Hall was renamed Avery Fisher Hall after renovations in 1976, and hasn't undergone another major redesign until now. After decades of stalled efforts, this current iteration was sparked in 2015, when music and movie mogul David Geffen donated $100 million toward the renovations and secured the naming rights.
Construction was first planned to start in 2019, but then was delayed until 2022. The pandemic offered an opportunity to begin work early after Lincoln Center shut down in March of 2020. And the institution's experiences during that period helped to shape what Lincoln Center leaders wanted to achieve with the new space.
Timms said Lincoln Center had 10 outdoor performing arts stages set up for about six months last year, which attracted more than 300,000 visitors and greatly expanded their audience. Of those visitors, half were people of color, half were under 45, and a quarter had never been to Lincoln Center before.
"It was a completely new audience for us in many ways," Timms said. "And what we really want to do at Lincoln Center is make every New Yorker feel like this is their home. We have a long way to go in that in that task, but that's our goal, [and] the new David Geffen Hall was very much designed with that in mind."
Timms said the first priority with the project was to improve and revitalize the acoustics inside the main theater, to make sure it was the "best-in-class acoustic experience for the New York Philharmonic." What resulted is a completely new theater inside the building, not just a renovation.
Designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects — in collaboration with acoustician Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks and theater designer Joshua Dachs of Fisher Dachs Associates — the hall has been improved in several ways, including its sonics and audience experience. The number of seats has been reduced from 2,700 to 2,200. Reconstructed side tiers and resurfaced walls will improve reverberation, bass and sound differentiation.
Designers moved the stage forward 25 feet, increased the incline of seating (ensuring you are higher than the person sitting in front of you), and added seats around the stage, which they say brings the audience 30 percent closer to the performers.
While the New York Philharmonic remains the priority, Timms believes these changes to the space will enable them to program more kinds of performances.
"How do we make this an extraordinary place for the Philharmonic to perform and also for other art forms?" he said. "The nice thing about the theater is it's a 21st century space: It's designed so we could, of course, do symphonic music, but it's very versatile. So we'll be able to do film; there'll be a lot of film events here. We've worked closely with Film at Lincoln Center to design the space for premieres and for film runs. You can do semi-staged work, [and] we've built in the technology to allow us to transform the space of amplified music. So we're not only creating a great sound, but it's also a much more versatile concert hall; it will allow us to do a lot more with this space we were able to do previously."
Lincoln Center has also brought on Shanta Thake, longtime director of The Public Theater and Joe's Pub, as their new chief artistic officer, with the intent to expand programming even more than in the past.
"We have a history of doing lots of things in this space," Timms said. "I heard this great story the other night about Prince renting it for himself one night. So Prince back in the day — I'm not sure this is true, but it was a great story — Prince rented it for himself and 20 of his fans, and did a show just one night for 20 fans because he wanted to play the space."
"Who knows!" he added, laughing. "We're trying to track it down — our archivist is working on that one."
The core concept governing the redesign is "welcome" — trying to turn Lincoln Center into a more inviting environment for New Yorkers who may or may not have previously had a relationship with it. To that end, there are several changes and improvements to various public spaces besides the theater.
There's a new welcome center, which serves as the box office and includes a small café, in the hall's southeast corner. In moving the box office from its previous location in the main lobby, they were able to double the size of the lobby and add more interactive elements.
"We're going to have a 50-foot media wall the entire length of the lobby, where you can watch whatever is happening upstairs for free downstairs," Timms explained. "So the entire ground floor has been completely reimagined to make people feel like they can have an experience of Lincoln Center, something other than the full concert-going experience. It provides some other way of engaging with with the work."
There is also a new Sidewalk Studio located at the corner of Broadway and 65th Street. An area that previously housed administrative offices has now been turned into an events space that can be utilized for educational talks, yoga classes, after-school activities, film screenings, smaller performances, masterclasses and social events.
Timms called the new space a good metaphor for how they approached the overall project.
"It was just completely covered with curtains — you literally couldn't see it, it was this kind of corner of beige," he said. "And it was the most visible bit of Lincoln Center, that corner of 65th and Broadway. More people pass that corner than anything else on our campus, and yet there was nothing inside there which said 'come in.' We're really trying to recreate these spaces so they actually are not just opening up Lincoln Center, but reaching out and saying to people, 'Look, you belong here. You can look inside and see people like you, you can see activity.' We're working hard to reduce some of the barriers to entry that have stood too long around organizations like Lincoln Center."
A full restaurant, patrons lounge and further amenities will be added to the public spaces around Geffen Hall in the future.
Despite the fact that the city has begun to drop most COVID safety measures in recent weeks — including the Key2NYC which required proof of vaccination for indoor venues — there is no guarantee that audiences are ready to come back in full force, which means a harsh economic reality still faces any arts institution.
According to the New York Times, the cancellation of the 2020-21 season resulted in the Philharmonic losing $21 million in ticket revenue, "on top of $10 million lost in the final months of its season last spring." But altogether, Lincoln Center says the Geffen Hall project is a boon for the city, and will support $600 million in economic activity and 6,000 jobs for New Yorkers.
Besides Geffen's $100 million contribution, Lincoln Center has not yet disclosed where the remaining funding has come from. (They say there will be more information available later in the spring.) Timms credited the Philharmonic and its regular donors with "[stepping] up to ensure this project could get over the line."
And after all those years filled with false starts, he said the best decision Lincoln Center made was to push the project forward sooner than initially planned.
"I think a lot of people saw at the end of last year [that] all the narratives were against New York, right?" he said. "No one was going to come back and people were going to [continue] leaving and no one would go back to the office. We really wanted to make a statement about our confidence in the future of the city. And I think that was something which which donors got behind in a really impressive way."