EXCLUSIVE: Music Hall's $135 million renovation reveals more hidden treasures

October reopening to showcase historic finds

CINCINNATI -- When Music Hall reopens to the public in October, it won't be your grandfather's performance space anymore.

In some ways, it will be more like your great-great-grandfather's.

Thanks to unexpected discoveries during Music Hall's $135 million makeover, the Over-the-Rhine icon will look more like its old self than ever when it's finished.

WCPO got an exclusive tour of the surprises that have surfaced during construction. Our guides explained how local preservationists are paying to restore some of the historic building's original luster while, at the same time, new upgrades aim to make the venue state-of-the-art.

Scott Santangelo, left, and Ed Rider.

"It's going to give people insight into what Music Hall used to look like," said Ed Rider, vice president of the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall. That's the group that is paying for historic extras that weren't in the original renovation budget.

"It's been so exciting," he said.

Rider considers the most exciting discovery one that 9 On Your Side first reported in August.

RELATED: See what workers have found at Music Hall

When construction workers pulled down a drop ceiling in Corbett Tower, they found 16 feet of space above with windows and an intricately stenciled cove ceiling that had been hidden for decades.

These windows in Corbett Tower were largely obscured for decades.

Renovations in the 1970s that were funded by arts patrons J. Ralph and Patricia Corbett placed drop ceilings throughout the structure as a way to save money on heating and cooling costs, Rider said.

Crews are restoring the windows that had been covered, which will bring more natural light into the room named for the couple. The original stenciled plaster on the ceiling was too damaged to repair. But specialists are working to replace the plaster and then replicate the stencils to look like the original design.

A temporary floor supported by scaffolding makes the ceiling repair work possible.

Crews also discovered that the north entry to Corbett Tower was supposed to be arched, and that element will be restored, too.

'Something magical'

In addition, the chandeliers that used to hang in Music Hall's main lobby, which the Corbetts donated years ago, will be moved to the expansive room that bears their name.

"It's going to transform that space into something magical," Rider said.

Once renovations are complete, Rider said that space would be available to rent for meetings and events, such as wedding receptions.

"I think once people see it, it's going to be a very popular place," he said.

The transformations don't stop with Corbett Tower.

Other windows were covered throughout the building during earlier renovations, too.

Construction crews found several massive windows as they removed plaster throughout the structure to add wiring and make repairs, said Scott Santangelo, director of operations for the Cincinnati Arts Association.

One was hidden behind a wall where an enormous, antique mirror used to hang in Music Hall's main entryway.

The rediscovered window in the lobby.

That window overlooks the north carriageway, where horse-drawn carriages used to be able to travel between Music Hall's buildings from Elm Street to the Erie and Miami Canal, Santangelo said.

More windows were discovered along an original staircase that is being preserved as part of the restoration.

The windows had been painted brown on the interior side and covered with printed plastic sheeting on the exterior side to give the appearance of stained glass.

Ed Rider examines the pattern affixed to the old glass.

The Society for the Preservation of Music Hall is saving the old glass and hopes to display some of it somewhere when the building renovation is finished, Rider said. But the project calls for replacing the painted panes with clear glass to allow more daylight into the building and make it look more like the original vision of Samuel Hannaford, the acclaimed architect who designed Music Hall.

Where city's past meets its future

Preservationists know what Hannaford intended because they used the architect's original drawings and plans for the building, Rider said.

That helped the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall recognize the big discovery on the outside of the building.

In the late 1960s or early 1970s, the brick exterior of the building was sandblasted in an effort to clean it. But that process removed black staining from some of the bricks that are shown in the drawings of Hannaford's original design, Rider said.

The bricks in the arch above include some that have been re-stained and some that haven't.

The society is paying to have the appropriate bricks re-stained black to recreate the pattern that Hannaford envisioned.

The work will be done using a chemical process that dates back to the 1800s, Rider said.

Originally, the mortar between the bricks was stained, too, but Rider said that costly step likely would be skipped as part of this effort.

Eventually, the group also wants to restore decorative trim and iron cresting work along Music Hall's roofline that have been damaged or removed over time, Rider said. But that won't be complete before the building reopens.

In all, the society is paying more than $4 million to have Music Hall's hidden treasures preserved and restored. About $3 million of that total was included in the original budget, and roughly $1 million is above and beyond the project's overall $135 million cost.

Some of that funding came from the estate of the late Patricia Corbett, whose fortune paid to hide the treasures decades ago. The rest came from the society's own members, Rider said.

Throughout the process, the renovation project architects have found a way to use dead space between the three buildings that make up Music Hall to create new rehearsal space and expand the venue in other ways, Santangelo said.

Those changes have "blurred that distinction" among the three buildings that comprise Music Hall more than any other makeovers in the past, he said.

The whole project has been a careful balance of giving the venue all the modern upgrades it needs to be successful while at the same time honoring its historic character, Santangelo said.

"Music Hall is not a museum so the renovation really reflects this is a working theater," he said. "It's a wonderful time in Cincinnati history where we get to reengage with our past as we step into our future."

More information about the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall and the Music Hall renovation project is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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