The Dowager’s Diary – Week One Hundred and Fifty

January 10-17, 1918

“Took Langdon to the Damrosch concert at Aeolian Hall,” was how Kate Roosevelt’s diary began on January 12, 1918.  I couldn’t imagine what she could have been thinking, taking a five year-old to hear a symphony orchestra. But on second thought, she might have had good reason and thought it high time to introduce her grandson to a proud legacy.  Kate’s late husband, Hilborne Roosevelt, would have been a doting grandfather to his daughter, Dorothy Roosevelt Geer’s son, Langdon, and his younger brother, Shippen, as well an inspiring music teacher.

Hilborne Roosevelt

Hilborne Roosevelt, in addition to inventing the world’s first pipe organ, was instrumental in the establishment of the New York Symphony Orchestra. On May 21, 1879, he was elected a founding member of the Symphony Society. According to the book, Hilborne and Frank Roosevelt by David Fox, “The moving force behind the organization was the world-famous conductor and composer, Leopold Damrosch (1832-1885), who had established the Oratorio Society in 1873. The intention of the Symphony Society was to rectify the long-standing deficiency of New York City’s musical culture of not having a permanent orchestra. For the most part, groups that held concerts would hire musicians solely for that occasion.  Where a “season” did exist, it scarcely exceeded three of four performances. The lack of continuity affected the quality of the music.”

Leopold Damrosch

Coincidentally, the first four concerts given by the Symphony Society Orchestra were held at Steinway Hall on 14th Street. Kate’s nephew-in-law, Theodore Steinway, a principle in the piano-manufacturing dynasty, was married to her niece, Ruth Davis Steinway. Theodore and Hilborne would have enjoyed each other’s company immensely would have and had lots to talk about.One manufactured organs, the other pianos.

The fifth concert was given at the Academy of Music on Irving Place. During the first five seasons, more than thirty performances were given.

Hilborne Roosevelt was elected society secretary in 1880. The Music Division of the New York Public Library preserves the minute book written in his own hand and I could only hope his penmanship was better than his widow’s. The Roosevelt Family were notoriously bad spellers. His widow, Kate Roosevelt’s spelling was fine, but her handwriting was scratchy and feathery. Many times while editing her diary I had to ponder over what word I was looking at.

Pipe organs at St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church

Hilborne Roosevelt’s reputation rose through ranks of the musical scale and in May, 1881, he was elected vice president of the New York Symphony Society. Under his direction, the society presented a concert, the likes which New York City had never seen. It was held at the newly-built Seventh Regiment Armory at 67th Street and Park Avenue.  Inside, the 200-foot by 300-foot drill floor that occupied most of a city block, was transformed into a concert hall with the construction of a platform and steeply rising chorus seating.  The Roosevelt Opus 7 organ was borrowed from Saint Vincent Ferrer Roman Catholic Church and transported a half-block up Lexington Avenue to the back door of the armory. A chorus of 1,2000 singers performed the Berlioz Requiem; Handel’s Messiah and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony before an audience of ten thousand.

The Band Shell at Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center

Following in his famous father’s footsteps, Walter Damrosch (1862-1950), made his musical debut when he drilled several sections of the large chorus singing at grand concert held at the Armory in 1881, arranged in-part by Hilborne Roosevelt.

In 1921, the New York Philharmonic and the New York Symphony merged. Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center is dedicated to these musical pioneers, icons of culture and friends of Kate and her late-husband, Hilborne Roosevelt.

Aeolian Hall Auditorium

The concert that Kate took little Langdon Geer to was held at Aeolian on 43rdStreet between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, across from the present day, Bryant Park. Opened on November 8, 1912 with an evening of music conducted by Walter Damrosch the new concert hall was described by the New York Times as “a home worthy of its music.”

An advertisement boasted, “This structure is the first really complete musical center the world has seen.  It embodies a true and logical union between musical art and musical commerce, providing for every need of the artist; the teacher; the student and the public. Here one may listen to a concert or a recital under conditions as ideal as modern architecture can make them.”  Although the structure was immense, its acoustics were so refined it provided the perfect venue for a small recital or a concert with an orchestra the size of those conducted by Walter Damrosch.

Designed by architects, Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore, Aeolian Hall was a multi-purpose building. It had eighteen floors, some of which were dedicated to showrooms that sold Aeolian pianos. The eighteenth floor was where the concerts were held with seating capacity for more than one thousand spectators.

In 1927, the Aeolian Company moved to a new building constructed on the site of the William Rockefeller mansion at 659 Fifth Avenue and East 54th Street. They signed a sixty-three year, $12million dollar lease. Other tenants of the building included Elizabeth Arden Cosmetics and I. Miller Shoes.

Walter Damrosch

Walter Damrosch had a long and illustrious career as a composer and conductor as well as a radio personality. In the 1920s he was appointed by David Sarnoff as NBC Radio’s musical director. He remained in close contact with Kate Roosevelt and her family. So much so she felt comfortable asking a personal favor of him. On August 18, 1919 she wrote, “Dear Mr. Damrosch: I wonder if you would do me a great favor and spare a few moments to advise a soldier returning from war. He has had some hardships and so has broken up his association with the world of music and he must, practically make a fresh start.  He is an excellent musician and organist. Can you and would you advise him? I hate to trouble you but I am sure that you will be glad in any way to help any man, who regardless of his own private and personal interest, came promptly to the assistance of his country in the hour of need.  With best regards to Mrs. Damrosch. Pray believe me, your most sincerely, Kate Shippen Roosevelt.”

This letter was forwarded to me just recently.  It was found among some old papers in the home of a follower of The Dowager’s Diary.

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

Photo One:
Aeolian Hall
Museum City of New York

Photo Two:
Hilborne Roosevelt
Noel Geer Seifert Photo

Photo Three:
Leopold Damrosch

Photo Four:
Pipe organs at St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church, Lexington Avenue, New York City

Photo Five:
The Band Shell at Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center

Photo Six:
Aeolian Hall Auditorium
Museum City of New York

Photo Seven:
Walter Damrosch, 1904
public domain