Carnegie Hall. Host to musical legends from Tchaikovsky to the Beatles, America's premier concert hall has been restored with an eye - and ear - toward maintaining its famous `sound'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

APPROPRIATELY, given the holiday season, New Yorkers have a new miracle to behold. This one, however, is not on 34th Street, but rather 57th. The legendary Carnegie Hall has been restored, at a cost of $30 million. The extensive work was accomplished in the incredible span of just of 29 weeks. As Lawrence P. Goldman, Carnegie Hall's director of real estate planning and development, notes, ``In New York City, you can't do anything in 29 weeks. But they did, and the glorious interior looks even better now than it did originally.''

Closed last May, Carnegie Hall reopened Dec. 15 with a gala concert starring, among others, violinist Isaac Stern, pianist Vladimir Horowitz, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, the New York Philharmonic, opera singer Marilyn Horne, and Frank Sinatra with Peter Duchin's orchestra. Such varied offerings were designed to show the full tonal range of the 2,800-seat hall.

The sound - conductor Serge Koussevitsky said the hall has ``a sonority like a Stradivarius'' - brought Carnegie Hall its stellar reputation.

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The neo-Italianate design was by architect William B. Tuthill, and Andrew Carnegie, for whom the hall was named (the source of the magnate's fortune may help explain the extensive use of steel in the hall's balconies), picked up the tab. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky conducted the opening concert in 1891, and was followed by nearly every famous musician since. Sergei Rachmaninoff made his American debut at Carnegie in 1909, as did Horowitz in 1928 and the Beatles in 1964. Gershwin's ``An American in Paris'' was first performed here; Benny Goodman's jazz was heard here.

Over the years, Carnegie Hall came to exemplify musical success. Says Isaac Stern, the hall's president, ``This is where they separate the men from the boys.''

Despite its pedigree, Carnegie Hall suffered no little abuse over the years. During the depression, portions of the space were sold to commercial ventures to subsidize the hall. A glass-fronted coffee shop, for example, occupied the corner of 57th Street and Seventh Avenue (in the just-completed work, it was removed and the original brick and terra cotta fa,cade restored). In addition, Carnegie Hall never had a true lobby. Patrons entered the hall on a wide set of stairs leading directly from the street. A tiny box office was tucked at the side. With no elevator, the handicapped were denied access.

There were other problems. During the making of the movie ``Carnegie Hall'' in 1946, a gaping hole was cut into the acoustical shell over the stage to allow room for lights and ventilation. Subsequently, the hole was hidden by a teaser curtain over the proscenium and a false ceiling on the stage. Gold radiator paint was applied repeatedly to the plaster decoration over the years, so that the details were lost.

Perhaps the final indignity was an ill-conceived plan to replace Carnegie Hall in 1960 with a high-rise office building, a project featured in Life magazine. The threat of demolition spurred action, led by Isaac Stern, who, days before the wrecking ball was to swing, persuaded the New York Legislature to approve purchase of the hall by the city, which subsequently leased the operation to a newly established nonprofit corporation. Since the rescue, Mr. Stern has remained in the forefront, and he oversaw restoration of the landmark.

Under the watchful eye of the architectural firm of James Stewart Polshek & Associates, the shortcomings and abuses have been remedied.

The scope of work in the concert hall was vast - new seats, floor, and carpet, reconfigured proscenium, and enlarged backstage area. Complicating the effort was the necessity of retaining the acoustical quality, which mandated extensive testing of all new materials. The color scheme was altered from antique white to varied shades of ivory with gold trim. Much of the work, such as a totally new electrical system, is invisible. New air conditioning, which the hall never had, will enable it to be open during the summer months. The massive duct work is hidden cleverly, filling voids in the walls. Existing openings in the hall ceiling were utilized for vents.

Part of the success of the redesign stems from the architects' attitude that nothing new or added should be made to look as though it had always been a part of the facility. Thus, the ``tiara,'' or lighting frame over the stage, follows the lines of the shell but is stylized and has a modern look, without becoming a piece of minimalist sculpture.

In the new lobby, architect Polshek says he purposely tried not ``to pander to ersatz historicism. We didn't want to be too cute, and we didn't pretend it was all there before.''

The result is a very untraditional space, declares the architect, who turned for precedent not to the American Renaissance under way when the hall was built, but to the decorative arts in Europe during the period. The pleasantly scaled, Polshek-designed torchiers on each side of the stairs were inspired by the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

One might quibble over the too-simple design of the balcony railings in the lobby, but overall there is a superb mix of old and new. It provides ``reminders of change over time,'' says Polshek, who notes that ``people who come to Carnegie Hall are not stuffed shirts.''

Adds Tyler H. Donaldson of the Polshek office, ``Carnegie Hall is the closest thing in America to a people's concert hall.'' It was that accessible, populist character - which in most cases had been only damaged, not lost - that the architects were determined to retain.

That they were able to do so - and in such an unbelievably short time - is due in no small measure to a dedicated crew of construction workers and artisans who completed their tasks with aplomb.

Yet to come are a cleaning of the exterior and construction of an adjoining 59-story office building. Designed by internationally renowned architect Cesar Pelli for a private developer, Rockrose Development Corporation, the richly evocative tower, sympathetic in design to Carnegie Hall, will provide additional backstage space and a funding source to guarantee the hall's future. Carnegie Hall is ready for its next 100 years.

Carleton Knight III reports regularly on architecture for the Monitor.

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