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Hill Auditorium’s Hundredth Birthday

Grace Shackman

Hill Auditorium, built in 1913, turned a hundred in 2013. To celebrate this milestone, the Ann Arbor District Library has scanned articles about the auditorium from the Ann Arbor News archives. Seen in the long perspective the changing programs mirror the interests and concerns of the community.

Hill Auditorium was built using $200,000 that Arthur Hill, U-M regent, alumnus, and Saginaw lumber baron, had left in his will for that purpose. It was the first university building on the north side of North University, replacing U-M professor Alexander Winchell’s 1858 octagon house. The auditorium was designed by Albert Kahn, best known for his Detroit factories but soon to become U-M’s most prolific architect with major buildings such as Angell Hall, Burton Tower, Hatcher Library, and the Clements Library to his credit.

It is generally agreed that Kahn was inspired by Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building in Chicago for the exterior design of Hill. For the interior, he was guided by acoustic expert Hugh Tallant, who was brought in from New York. Although it was men such as Albert Stanley, Henry Frieze, and Francis Kelsey, founders of University Musical Society and the School Music, who had been lobbying for a better performance venue, U-M president Marion Burton told Tallant his assignment was to create a space where the whole student body could meet and be able to hear the speaker. Tallant’s final product did what they asked, but also created a wonderful space for music, attested to by the world famous performers who come back again and again. (See UMS site.)

Hill Auditorium's First Audience, May 14, 1913

The dedication of Hill Auditorium, June 25, 1913, was headline news in that day’s paper. An hour-long parade led by a fife and drum corps, followed by a who’s who of important people and the whole senior class, wound its way from central campus to Hill. A vocal music program including the Messiah’s Hallelujah chorus opened the program, thus marking the first time the public heard music in the auditorium.

Four men made addresses, two representing the university and two from the state level but none from the music community. U-M emeritus President James B. Angell, who had been a personal friend of Arthur Hill, at the request of the Hill family, presented the building to the university and the state. U-M regent William Clements (himself to later be donor of the library that bears his name) accepted it for the university, while Governor Woodbridge Ferris and Senator Charles E. Townsend accepted it for the state. The latter is of interest in that from the beginning the auditorium was for all, not just the university community, which has indeed been the case.

Now best known for music, when the archive starts in Oct. of 1924, the events for the rest of the year included two music series and five talking programs. The latter consisted of the Choral Union and another series with the Sousa Band headlining. The spoken programs included two religious services, Vilhjalmur Steffansson on his Arctic adventures, a pro-League of Nations speaker, and a debate between U-M and the Oxford Union on prohibition. At the end of the evening, the packed auditorium voted for the U-M team who were on the pro side.

Announcement of a talk given by Theodore Roosevelt, March 29, 1927

Spoken word events continued to lead for the rest of the 1920s although music was well represented especially with the May Festival, a three- and later four-day celebration of music which had begun in 1894 and continued until 1995. Notable speakers included Will Rogers and Theodore Roosevelt, the latter talking about his hunting trip in Central Asia. Interest in faraway places continued with a program on Mongolia and a visit from the Japanese ambassador encouraging friendship between the two countries. The auditorium was also used for local events such as a debate between Ann Arbor High School and Albion High School over government ownership of coal mines.

The 1930s continued with the same mix. May Festivals were supplemented the rest of the year by famous performers such as Paul Robeson, Ted Shawn, Sergei Rachmaninoff (listed as “Russian pianist”), Vladimir Horowitz, and the “boy violinist” Yehudi Menuhin. World events could be followed with an equally impressive roaster of speakers including Winston Churchill in 1932 warming that the world was facing disaster and Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, daughter of the novelist, explaining the problems in her former homeland. Other educational lectures included ones on Christian Science, historic Washington with “colored slides,” and a movie of the 1932 Olympics. Fifty-eighth Annual Choral Union Concert Series -- Gregor Piatigorsky, January 25, 1937 Live theater ran the spectrum from a Broadway production of Robin Hood to a passion play for the religious minded. When famous cellist Gregor Piatigorsky played at Hill in 1937 his girlfriend, Jacqueline de Rothchild, accompanied him so that they could secretly marry away from her family in Europe. Alva Sink, wife of Charles Sink, head of University Musical Society, heard of their plans and insisted that the ceremony be in the Sink home.

By the end of the 1930s and into the first half of the 1940s, Hill was used mainly for war-related speakers, starting in 1939 with Eleanor Roosevelt, followed by foreign correspondents Leland Stowe and Anne O’Hare McCormick, Sinclair Lewis debating Lewis Browne on whether fascism could happen here, and Sen. Burton K. Wheeler sponsored by the campus anti-war group.

In 1948, with the war was over and people returning to civilian life, Charles A. Sink suggested that a bigger auditorium should be built to accommodate the increased university enrollment and more demand for concert tickets. Lack of funding, rather than appreciation for the building in the pre-historic preservation days, prevented the project. A year later a major updating of Hil, which an Ann Arbor News editorial described as “creeping over a third of a century,” was announced. The skylights were covered to allow better use of the auditorium during the daytime, the chandeliers taken down because they were considered too old fashioned, and a color scheme of maize and blue used throughout including painting the organ pipes those colors. In the next fifty years only minor changes were made. In 1964 a kiosk announcing coming programs was put around the stately elm in front, which stayed until 1977 when the elm was cut down. In 1973 Hill’s granddaughter donated a portrait of her grandfather. Repairs to the organ were regularly reported.

Interest in world affairs increased after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s lectures on this topic included a visit from the Philippine Ambassador, a debate with two senators over foreign policy, and a talk By Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins who is described as a “world traveler and analyst.“ Travelogues aimed not just at the curious but to the increasingly large group of foreign travelers became a staple. The effect of television on the movie industry could be seen in the upsurge of travelling shows put on by movie stars including Bette Davis, Ilka Chase, Basil Rathbone, and Burgess Meredith.

Preparing Hill Auditorium Stage for Ice Show, March 1950

The red scare that hit the nation after World War II affected Hill. In May of 1950 a talk by Herbert Phillips, an avowed communist, was cancelled by the U-M regents. Students objected and tried to organize a student/faculty forum to discuss the topic, but that too was cancelled because they couldn’t find a faculty member willing to defend the ban. Fourteen years later, in 1964, the same issue arose, this time the controversial person, neo-Nazi George Rockwell, was allowed to speak, albeit with picketers and lots of heckling. In 1972, after an April Fools’ rally when in spite of no smoking rules, the U-M fire marshal reported that “smoking of marijuana did occur”, the rules were tightened with more conditions on rentals.

The most unusual use of Hill may have been in 1950 when “Buff” McCuster, a former skating partner of Sonja Henie, and a cast of 30 put on an ice show, “Icelandia,” using a portable ice rink. Another unusual program took place in 1956 when a hypnotist demonstrated his skill using volunteers from the audience.

The last part of the collection deals with the most recent restoration that updated systems while returning the décor to as close as possible to Albert Kahn’s original conception. Articles trace the project from its first suggestion in 1989, to approval by the regents in 1993 after a feasibility study, to work finally beginning in 2001, the delay due to slowness of getting donations.

We have several other collections to relating to the history of Hill Auditorium and the University Musical Society.

Photos of Hill Auditorium from the Ann Arbor News Archive

AADL has digitized several images of Hill Auditorium taken over several decades, including this wonderful photograph of Vladimir Horowitz by Ann Arbor News photographer, Jack Stubbs, as well as many others by News photographers Eck Stanger and Robert Maitland LaMotte.

More Photographs at UMS: A History of Great Performances

AADL has digitized hundreds of photographs of UMS performances, including candid backstage shots in Hill Auditorium. This collection is part of UMS: A History of Great Performances, an archive of historical programs and photographs created in partnership with the University Musical Society.

UMS Concert Programs Archive

AADL, in partnership with the University Musical Society, has digitized a full run of historical programs covering 100 years of concerts at Hill Auditorium and over 130 years of UMS concert history. The Programs Archive is available for browsing and full-text searching, and is part of UMS: A History of Great Performances.