Krannert Center’s Great Hall

The U of I’s new world-class concert hall

Illinois Times

December 23, 1977

This appreciation of the Great Hall at Krannert was sparked by my visits there to listen to first-rate chamber and orchestral performances that the hall made possible. Heretofore, Illinoisans in my part of the state had to drive to Chicago or St. Louis to enjoy good music in a good hall.

 

America's great twentieth century concert halls can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There's the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.; the Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis; and there is the Great Hall at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana.

 

What the three halls have in common—besides their high reputation among musicians and concert-goers—is their acoustician. His name is Cyril M. Harris, for more than thirty years an acoustics consultant based in New York. When Harris is not consulting, he teaches and does research at Columbia University, in its schools of architecture and engineering.

 

Harris' latest triumph came in October of 1976 when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra performed for the first time in its newly remodeled home, Avery Fisher Hall in New York's Lincoln Center. Avery Fisher Hall—or Philharmonic Hall as it was known until 1973—proved an embarrassment when it opened in 1962. Though they rarely use this kind of language around Lincoln Center, its acoustics stunk. The hall's sound was harsh, uneven, thin. Five patch-up jobs and $2 million over fourteen years had not been able to fix it.

 

Harris was given the job of fixing Avery Fisher Hall, a chore he managed by tearing the building apart and starting over from scratch. The result, according to New York critics and audiences, was worth every one of the $5 million it cost.

 

The Great Hall at Krannert was the first of four such triumphs for Harris. Built with money left to the University of Illinois by cardboard box king Herman C. Krannert—a gift tactfully described at the time only as "extremely generous"—the center is an ambitiously scaled multipurpose facility. It boasts four separate theaters, (of which the Great Hall is the largest), and an outdoor amphitheater, rehearsal halls, elaborate set shops, and underground parking garages. High Fidelity magazine called it a "prairie Acropolis." It is to the serious concert-goer what the U of I’s Assembly Hall is to fans of basketball and the Ice Capades.

 

This Acropolis' Parthenon is the Great Hall. Designed by Max Abramovitz (a friend of Harris) with Harris as acoustics consultant, the hall seats 1,111 on the main or orchestral level with another 989 seats in the single balcony. Like Boston's Symphony Hall, or for that matter most of the great nineteenth century concert halls, the Great Hall at Krannert is shaped like a giant shoe box. This rectangular shape is common to nearly all of Harris' original designs. The hall is a single open room, with no proscenium arch to separate orchestra and audience. Smaller than some of his more recent designs (Avery Fisher Hall seats 2,742, for example, even after the scrapping of 94 seats during the remodeling) the Great Hall features a movable wall which can, by closing off the choir seats above and behind the stage, limit seating capacity by another couple of dozen seats.

 

The interior of the Great Hall is deceptively spare. For all its apparent simplicity of design, this 200-by-50-foot box is a surprisingly complicated place. There is not a single element in the room construction or decoration—with the possible exception of the color of the carpet—that was not chosen for its effect on the room's acoustical performance. The principal building material, to pick one example, is wood. The walls are butternut; the floors and the stage are also built of light-colored, unadorned wood strips. Wood is one of Harris' favorite materials, largely because of its ability to resonate, to capture and throw back sound waves. Both the stage and the main floor, for instance, are mounted on joists suspended over an open space, a trick Harris used again in Avery Fisher Hall, after first calming some nervous New York City fire inspectors. Its purpose, as described by the New Yorker's Bruce Bliven, Jr., is "to give the floor a certain amount of flexibility, so that it could vibrate, if only slightly, in response to the sound of the orchestra, and allow the members of the audience, with their feet on the floor, to be able to feel the music as well as hear it." At the Great Hall, you feel the music.

 

The balconies, too, were designed with a calculated eye toward their sound-reflecting properties. The twenty or so balcony faces are angled to bounce sound down into the main floor area and work in conjunction with the broken surfaces of the sidewalls to disperse the sound evenly throughout the hall.

 

But the ceiling is the most architecturally distinctive feature of the room. It is also, as might be expected, the most acoustically important feature. The ceiling is painted white plaster, one and one-half inches thick, so that it will reflect rather than absorb the sound which hits it from below. At first glance—at second glance, too, for that matter—it looks like a gigantic, crinkled piece of cellophane. Its jagged contours act to disperse sound waves, scattering them evenly across all frequencies and into all parts of the hall. The ceiling is what the architectural critics like to call a "felicitous blending of form and function"—meaning that it works and looks good, too. In one form or another, this kind of ceiling is a trademark of Harris-designed halls.

 

People are an integral part of Harris's designs. Sound-absorptive materials are used only sparingly; the audience balances what would be, in an empty room, a too brittle sound. So important is the concert-goer to a hall's sound, in fact, that it will sound different with a full house than it does with, say, 20 percent of its seats empty. Krannert's seats are plushly upholstered—as much for the upholstery's acoustical properties as for the comfort of the public. If a chair is left empty, the soft, fabric-covered seat, back and arms are, acoustically speaking, the next best thing to a soft-fabric-covered customer.

 

The audience's role in dampening the sound coming from the musicians is very real, and it is often underestimated. During the winter months, for example when people wear more and heavier clothing, many halls lose some of their brightness and clarity; their sound, perfectly good in the summer, goes a little dull when the weather turns cold. Customers who refuse to check bulky winter coats make the problem even worse; the sound is swallowed like a fat man on a featherbed. Concert-goers at the Great Hall don't merely visit the hall. In a real, measurable way, they are the hall.

 

To an acoustician, the sound that is produced outside a hall is as important as the sound produced inside it. Traffic noise, air conditioning, honking horns, rattling air conditioner vents, rumbling trucks are constant bugaboos. At Krannert the stage of the Great Hall was sunk below street level to minimize street noise. The hall is also separated from the common public area that serves all four theaters in the complex by its own foyer and lobby, which are carpeted. Between these public areas and each of the four theaters Harris ordered the installation of an insulating layer of sound absorptive fiberglass covered by decorative wooden strips. If a performance in the Great Hall is ruined by noise, it won't be from outside.

 

The result of all this fiddling is a place to hear live music that has no equal downstate. Though Krannert's designers hoped, by construction of the Festival Theater, to limit the Great Hall's use to performances of larger orchestral and/or choral works and thus avoid the need to compromise the room's acoustics, the hall is frequently used for the performance of smaller-scaled works (chamber music, recitals, and the like) that the intimate Festival Theater was intended to house. The reasons, not surprisingly, have to do with sound—in this case the sound of tinkling coins. The Great Hall seats 2,100, the Festival Theater 965. A chamber group of the caliber of the Juilliard String Quartet can sell out even the Great Hall's 2,100 seats. Architecture may bow to acoustics at Krannert, but nothing bows to the box office.

 

But it is a measure of the Great Hall's versatility that, though designed to accommodate (both physically and acoustically) as many as 120 musicians onstage, it can still compliment as few as four. The sound at the Great Hall, especially to those used to hearing music in places like the Springfield High School auditorium, is startling. (Springfield High School does well enough for pep rallies and the showing of sex hygiene films, but as a music hall it's a disaster.) People drive a hundred miles and more to attend concerts there, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, commonly acknowledged as one of the world's best, buses to Urbana to record there. Both agree that it's worth the trip. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated