The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Fifty-Six

February 21-28, 1918

It was the last week of February 1918 and Kate Shippen Roosevelt had caught the whooping cough from her grandson, Langdon Geer. Back in the early twentieth century it was quite the curse to come down with this potentially fatal sickness sometimes called “the one- hundred- day cough.” The diagnosis was given by Dr. Bert Wilcox, who was married to Dorothy Geer’s late husband, Langdon’ sister, Louise. From entries in Kate Roosevelt’s diary, the family doctor was always on call and came running to the Roosevelt residence day or night at the first sign of sickness. He might have felt responsible for his extended family as he misdiagnosed his brother-in-law, Langdon Geer’s nasal boil. It was more serious than he thought.  It turned into septicemia (a blood disease) and caused his untimely death in 1915. He was not taking any chances with the surviving family. Kate was ordered complete bed rest and quarantined to her the fourth-floor apartment she had just purchased at the Nottingham on 35 East 30th Street.

Walter Damrosch

Always waiting in the wings to take advantage of unused theater, opera or concert tickets was Kate’s sister, Ettie Shippen, and she jumped at the chance to go to see the performance of Medea at Carnegie Hall. Her date for the night was her niece, Dorothy Geer. The opera composed by Walter Damrosch was getting rave reviews and I was sure that Kate felt bad about not going to see the conductor’s latest triumph. His father, the famous German conductor, Leopold Damrosch, and her late husband, Hilborne Roosevelt, were founders of the New York Symphony Society which evolved into the New York Philharmonic. On this night, I was sure they were both there in spirit as was Kate.

The setting for the performance was perfect. Carnegie Hall had its beginnings in a similar fashion as did the New York Symphony. When Hilborne Roosevelt and the German conductor, Leopold Damrosch, gave a mammoth concert in 1879 at the Third Avenue Armory, they realized the acoustics were bad and the fact that the city did not have its own orchestra made the situation even more unsavory and so they formed the New York Symphony.

Andrew Carnegie

Leopold’s son, Walter Damrosch, saw a similar situation. As conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and the Symphony and Oratorio Societies he was upset that there was no suitable venue for opera or orchestral music in New York City. Neither the Academy of Music on Irving Place or the Metropolitan House on 39thStreet, founded Kate Roosevelt’s uncle, James Alfred Roosevelt, could stage operatic productions properly as was being done in the great houses in Europe. Steinway Hall, Aeolian Hall and Chickering Hall were built primarily as showrooms for piano manufacturers. To solve this dilemma, Walter Damrosch, the second-generation musical conductor began whispering in the ear of the millionaire, Andrew Carnegie who was known for donating libraries and educational properties, but was not eager to fund an entertainment cause.

Carnegie Hall

According to the Daytonian in Manhattan, “The millionaire needed no convincing that a new musical hall was needed. He was simply not interested in paying for one.” Damrosch wrote in his diary that Carnegie felt that the importance of science and literature in life far outweighed that of music. “Carnegie always insisted that the greatest patronage of music should come from a paying public rather than from private endowment.”

Carnegie finally gave-in, but only to a point.  Damrosch remembered, “He built Carnegie Hall but he did not look upon this as philanthropy and expected to have the hall support itself and give a fair return upon the capital investment.” In other words, the idea behind the building of Carnegie Hall was not charity, it was a business deal.

Events at Carnegie Hall Are Advertised

Plans were begun in 1889. On March 15, the New York Times joyfully reported, “New York City will probably soon rejoice in the possession of a music hall. For several years musical enthusiasts have been trying hard to bring about the result which they now hope to accomplish.”

The article went on to explain that the New York Oratorio and Symphony Societies and “some other gentlemen interested in the advancement of music had purchased a plot of ground composing about nine city lots on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 57th Street upon which it is proposed to erect a magnificent building, suitable in every way for the purposes to which it is to be devoted. Mr. Andrew Carnegie is the moving spirit in this scheme.”

Waiting for the Show Outside Carnegie Hall

The Times had its qualms about the location and noted that “perhaps it is rather too far uptown.” The building site was not only uptown, it was in an undeveloped area filled with stables, weed-filled lots and coal yards, just south of Dickel’s Riding Academy.

Andrew Carnegie assembled a stock company to operate the hall and loaned it the cash necessary (in return he received ninety percent of the stock).  Kate Roosevelt herself, owned a five percent share.

The architectural commission was given to the Oratorio Society’s board secretary, William Tuthill.  At the time, the thirty-four-  year-old Tuthill was well-known for his singing, not for his architectural skills.

By June of that same year the company had acquired additional real estate and the Times reported that a “much larger building that was originally contemplated would be built.”

The Actress/Singer Margaret Anglin

By selecting a musician to design the building, Carnegie and Damrosch ensured that the focus would be on acoustics not architecture. The exterior was completed in the Venetian Renaissance style.

Carnegie Hall opened to great fanfare on May 5, 1891 with a five-day festival of orchestral and choral concerts.  Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky made his American debut that week, conducting several of his own compositions.

Carnegie Hall began a tradition of introducing Americans to European masters and for every debut, the stockholder, Kate Roosevelt made it a tradition of her own to be seated in the audience in her private box.

Like the loyal mailman, neither rain, nor snow nor sleet nor hail would keep Kate Roosevelt from a musical performance, only a bad case of the whooping cough kept her at home on February 21, 1918. But I am positive Ettie and Dorothy filled her in on Walter Damrosch’s musical interpretation of the Greek tragedy Medea starring Margaret Anglin.

Sharon Hazard’s Dowager’s Diary appears on Thursday.

On WAT-CAST, listen to Sharon talk about the series.

Photo One:
Singing Lessons at Carnegie Hall
Museum City of New York

Photo Two:
Walter Damrosch
Carnegie Hall.org
Public Domain

Photo Three:
Andrew Carnegie
wiki

Photo Four:
Carnegie Hall
Museum City of New York

Photo Five:
Events at Carnegie Hall Are Advertised
copyright expired as noted on image

Photo Six:
Waiting for the Show Outside Carnegie Hall
Museum City of New York

Photo Seven:
The Actress/Singer Margaret Anglin
Library of Congress