CINCINNATI -- For Cincinnati City Councilman Kevin Flynn, making Music Hall more accessible to people with disabilities isn't just a policy position.
Flynn was in a serious car crash in 2002 that left him with quadriplegia. In the 15 years he has been using a wheelchair, he has become acutely aware of how difficult it can be for people with disabilities to enjoy Cincinnati's cultural treasures.
"I used to go to Music Hall, whether it was for a concert or an event, and they tried. But it was difficult," Flynn said. "You had to enter through some crazy side door that a lot of times wasn't open."
When planning began for Music Hall's $135 million renovation, Flynn seized the opportunity to be part of a committee to make the iconic venue more accessible. With planning complete and construction under way, he's confident the community will be pleased with the changes.
"For a building that's going to be 150 years old, they've done an amazing job," he told WCPO. "I'm completely satisfied that it not only meets the requirements of minimum accessibility, it goes beyond that."
To help the public better understand the important changes being made to make the venue more accessible -- and how those changes mesh with Music Hall's historic character -- project architect Alan Weiskopf gave WCPO an exclusive tour of the work in progress.
Among the highlights:
• The project team got rid of the big ramp in front of the building that used to be needed for wheelchair access.
• Music Hall will have high-speed elevators that reach every floor of the building and more wheelchair accessible bathrooms.
• New technology and better signage will be added for people with hearing and vision disabilities.
"I think we've done a pretty nice job of really eliminating a lot of the barriers that were in this building," said Weiskopf, managing principal of Pittsburgh-based Perfido Weiskopf Wagstaff + Goettel.
New elevators and 'potty parity'
Making the historic structure so accessible has been anything but simple.
For one, Music Hall actually consists of three separate buildings. Those buildings have been altered dramatically over time.
As the venue has been modified, accessible features have been added, he said, but the changes didn't always make sense.
"If you put in a new toilet room, you must have accessible stalls, and the accessories must be at the proper height. But that toilet room can be at a place that someone in a wheelchair can't even get to," Weiskopf said. "Partial renovations are always fraught with situations that you've made something accessible, but you can't really get to it."
This major renovation of Music Hall will add two new passenger elevators in the structure's south hall, and the southernmost entrance on Elm Street will serve as the venue's primary accessible entrance. The elevators stop at every floor -- including the ballroom. In the past, Music Hall staff used a freight elevator to get people in wheelchairs to the ballroom.
The existing elevator in the auditorium north hallway will remain to help people access the three floors of the auditorium, but a rear door will be added to give more convenient access to the new rehearsal room being built in the north wing.
A small lift is also being added to improve access to auditorium seating at the orchestra level.
Additionally, the project is adding lots of new restrooms throughout the facility with particular emphasis on adding women's restrooms for so-called "potty parity," Weiskopf said.
All the new toilets will be at the proper height for accessibility, he said, and many restrooms will have grab bars in toilet stalls that aren't specifically designed with wheelchairs in mind.
Drinking fountains that weren’t wheelchair accessible also are being removed and replaced with fountains that are.
'The right thing to do'
For people with hearing impairments, the changes to Music Hall will be dramatic, too.
As part of the renovation, the old IR, or "infrared," assisted listening system is being replaced. A new FM radio system with personal receivers will take its place. People who need that system will have the option of using headphones or a personal induction loop, a device that helps people with hearing loss hear more clearly by reducing background noise. The personal induction loops at Music Hall will be compatible with hearing instruments equipped with telecoil, or t-coil.
That improvement is an example of the project team taking advantage of the technology available to make Music Hall performances a better experience for everyone, said Brenda A. Dixon, the former ADA coordinator for the city of Cincinnati. Dixon served as a consultant to the project's accessibility committee.
"The ideas and the things that were implemented in conjunction with the architecture and the new technology we have, I have no doubt that it will be so much better for the citizens of Cincinnati," she said.
Weiskopf noted that the venue would be more accessible for performers and staff, too.
For example, a lift is being added to make the orchestra pit accessible.
There also had been a set of steps that connected backstage left and backstage right, and that connection has been evened out, said Chris Pinelo, vice president of communications for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
"We are making sure that the back-of-house operations are also very accessible," Pinelo said. "I just think, not only is it the best business practice, it's also the right thing to do."
The goal, after all, is to make Music Hall more welcoming for everyone.
For her part, Dixon said she couldn't wait to go to a performance in the renovated space when it reopens later this year and talk to people with disabilities about their experience.
"It's about them," she said.
More information about 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.