Severance Hall, designed by Walker and Weeks, is a neo-classical building of Ohio sandstone and Indiana limestone, completed in 1931 as the permanent home for the Cleveland Orchestra. The building interiors are an eclectic combination of many styles—Art Deco, Classicism, and Egyptian Revival—and materials. While timeless in design and materiality, the building suffered from a number of functional and physical deficiencies. We were charged with restoring the building to its original architectural splendor, remedying a number of unfortunate mid-century interventions and designing an expansion to serve the contemporary needs of patrons and performers.
Restoring the Hall
In 1958, a new stage shell was installed at Severance Hall. While the ‘Szell Shell’ – named for then-Music Director George Szell – was aesthetically in conflict with the Art Deco hall, it had an acoustic quality that gave the concert hall and the famed Cleveland Orchestra much of their unique, shared character. Our design for the new stage shell retains this essential acoustic quality of the 1958 shell, while enhancing the overall acoustic quality of the hall through acoustic coupling and the resulting increase in reverberation time. Our design motifs for the new concert stage respond to the aesthetics directed by Walker and Weeks’ original auditorium design, such as wood panels, bas-relief ornament, and the gilded ceiling’s floral pattern, itself inspired by the lace of Elizabeth Severance’s wedding dress.
The installation of the 1958 ‘Szell Shell’ also made the critical mistake of entombing – and thus rendering useless – the hall’s 6,025-pipe E.M Skinner organ. As part of our design and phasing process, we were able to relocate the organ and incorporate it into the design of the new shell, allowing the organ to be heard in all of its robust glory once again.
"The renovation and expansion of Severance Hall by David Schwarz exceeded our needs and expectations on all counts. He achieved more than we thought was even possible.David M. Schwarz/Architectural Services, Inc. was the only architect we talked to who really understood how a concert hall functions for both the audience and the performers.He created something breathtaking out of what had been a very dull experience."
- Gary Hanson, Executive Director, Severance Hall
Recreating the Grand Entry Sequence
The original Walker & Weeks-designed Severance Hall featured an entry experience, ceremonially building up to the beauty and drama of the main lobby and, ultimately, the auditorium. Over time, changes within the building and its context eroded the clarity of the original plan. An underground parking garage was constructed at the rear of the building, after which, patrons were lead down a corridor carved out of back-of-house space, which bypassed much of the original entry sequence. During the renovation, the makeshift corridor was replaced by articulated circulation spaces lined with a variety of public spaces including an entry lobby, a gift shop, coat checks, function rooms, and a new restaurant.
The rear addition to the Severance Hall creates a new “Plaza Façade” that addresses a recently completed plaza in the heart of the adjacent Case Western Reserve University campus. When Severance Hall was built in 1931, the location — within Cleveland’s University Circle area —was considered the center of Cleveland’s cultural, medical, and educational life. The design of the new addition is sensitive to the spirit of the original Neo-classical design, providing a nearly seamless expansion of the existing hall. Subtle variation - nearly invisible to the casual viewer, yet readily apparent to the more studied observer – distinguish new construction from the original fabric. The new “Severance Order” pilasters (a stylized Ionic Order, with musical motifs in lieu of standard volutes in the capital) exemplify these variations.
This new addition facilitated a much needed expansion (and improvement) of back-stage, administrative, storage and other back-of-house support spaces. . Expanding the existing back-stage support areas, which were cramped and inefficient, to facilitate smooth operating procedures, enabled Severance Hall to host performances in a manor appropriate to the Cleveland Orchestra’s grand tradition. Increased capability to accommodate a wider range of events and provide access and services for all audiences, patrons, and donors through updated facilities drastically increased the community’s use of Severance Hall.