Lewisohn Stadium: the story of New York’s lost music venue

New York’s Lewisohn Stadium was one of America’s most important and popular classical music venues – until its demolition in 1973. Brian Wise tells its story

What happened to New York's Lewisohn Stadium

If Carnegie Hall represents the great rescue saga of American concert hall architecture, then Lewisohn Stadium, which once towered over Upper Manhattan like an ancient Greek amphitheatre, is its tale of forgotten loss. There it is, with its neo-classical colonnade and twinkling lights, in the climactic scene of the 1945 film Rhapsody in Blue, as pianist Oscar Levant performs the title piece with conductor Paul Whiteman and orchestra. When the Gershwin biopic opened, the stadium was 30 years old and a fixture in New York’s musical life. Viewers could momentarily forget its discomforts – the stony seats, the spotty amplification – as Gershwin’s swooning theme pulled you into the stadium’s grandeur.

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Skip ahead to 1973 and Lewisohn Stadium was given a very different Hollywood treatment. Sydney Lumet’s neo-noir crime drama Serpico featured the now-derelict structure as the backdrop for a meeting between two cops, played by Tony Roberts and Al Pacino. It was razed that year. Unlike the battle over Carnegie Hall, there were no celebrities or rich benefactors rallying to save it. The surrounding neighbourhood had grown seedy and the stadium’s facade ‘blistered by neglect and scarred by graffiti,’ according to a New York Times eulogy. A car park and college building would take its place.

For nearly half a century, Lewisohn Stadium gave people from all walks of life the chance to hear names like violinist Fritz Kreisler, soprano Leontyne Price and clarinettist Benny Goodman for as little as 25 cents. It endured a pandemic, a world war, depression and suburban flight, while promoting a proud civic spirit.

‘It certainly was a very impressive-looking place,’ says Stanley Drucker, who joined the New York Philharmonic’s clarinet section in 1948 and played his first concerts that summer at Lewisohn Stadium. ‘In those days we played six concerts per week, with six rehearsals. Every programme was different. One got to really play repertoire and learn it fast. Among the conductors were included the likes of Pierre Monteux, Fritz Reiner and Zubin Mehta.’

Druckner, now 91 and retired from the orchestra, remembers his Philharmonic solo debut at Lewisohn in 1957, in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. ‘It was a beautiful summer night and exciting for a young player,’ says Drucker, who became its principal clarinettist three years later. With no air conditioning in concert halls, Lewisohn’s hillside perch above central Harlem offered an airy city retreat, reachable by subway.

When did Lewisohn Stadium first open?

Named after its main benefactor, the German-born industrialist Adolph Lewisohn, Lewisohn Stadium opened in 1915 as an athletic field for the City College of New York. Its Doric columns and stately pediments were a signature of architect Arnold W Brunner, who designed monumental buildings including New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and the US Courthouse in Cleveland. Before it was complete, college officials determined that it would serve as a summertime concert venue.

The concert series began in 1918 under the direction of Minnie Guggenheimer, who for 40 years served as its chairperson and guiding spirit. ‘She was famous for her malaprops and her big hats,’ Drucker recalls. A chain-smoking New Yorker, she entertained audiences with her wise-cracking intermission speeches. (Once, as three temperamental opera singers waited in the wings, she told the crowd, ‘If I get enough money, I’ll be able to give you better artists in the future.’)

Under Guggenheimer’s direction, the New York Philharmonic arrived in 1922, debuting with an all-Wagner programme, and remained a summer fixture until 1964 (billed in later years as the Stadium Symphony Orchestra). ‘Stadium audiences were treated to, arguably, an even more eclectic diet than were winter concertgoers,’ writes the musicologist Jonathan Stern in his 2019 history Music for the (American) People: The Concerts at Lewisohn Stadium. There were forays into jazz-symphonic crossover and some efforts towards racial and ethnic diversity.

The roaring twenties were a particularly freewheeling era, bringing Philharmonic performances of Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, Honegger’s Pacific 231, John Alden Carpenter’s Skyscrapers, Charles T Griffes’s The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla-Khan and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The latter drew boos, whistles and some raucous applause when conductor Willem van Hoogstraten introduced it in July 1926. Mahler symphonies were presented to audiences of 6,000 to 7,000 listeners, decades before they became concert-hall fixtures. Even after the market crash of 1929, a vibrancy remained, as in one all-Gershwin concert of 16 August 1932.

With the composer in attendance, the Philharmonic introduced Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, a product of his recent trip to Havana and initially known as Rumba. The New York Herald estimated the turnout at 17,000, with an additional 4,000 turned away, making it the largest Lewisohn crowd to date. Despite reviews, the concert established him as kind of a house composer, and from 1936-64, an all-Gershwin concert was presented every season (though he himself died of a brain tumour in 1937).

During the Great Depression, Lewisohn Stadium was known as one of the best deals in town, and opera was added to the mix. The 1934 season, for instance, included concert performances of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, Wagner’s Lohengrin, Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Verdi’s Aida and Gounod’s Faust. The next summer, Fritz Reiner led two-hour reductions of all four operas in Wagner’s Ring cycle plus Tristan und Isolde. A critic for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1936 echoed public response, deeming the opera performances ‘usually hit-and-miss affairs’, but conceded that ‘the orchestra of course is better than one hears in the winter season at the Metropolitan, and the casts are frequently as good.’

No such hedging was necessary when Marian Anderson made her Lewisohn debut on 26 August 1925. The contralto from Philadelphia had triumphed over 300 other singers in the annual talent contest held at Aeolian Hall and co-sponsored by Lewisohn Stadium. At the winner’s concert, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic, Anderson sang an aria from Donizetti’s La favorita and several spirituals.

She returned to the stadium six more times, from 1940-56, but had to wait decades before a wider breakthrough in New York. Indeed, she was somewhat past her prime when she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, becoming the first African American to sing a lead role with the company. There were other firsts for black performers at Lewisohn, the most most striking of which was a 1940 programme featuring William Grant Still’s cantata And They Lynched Him on a Tree alongside music by Dvořák, Roy Harris and Jerome Kern (with the great bass-baritone Paul Robeson).

Why was Lewisohn Stadium demolished?

?But by the end of World War II, the series was bleeding money, a condition blamed on television, recordings, the exodus of residents to the suburbs and a perceived decline in the surrounding neighbourhood. The ever-present deficit had reached over $100,000 in 1948; the eight-week series was cut to five by the mid-1950s. Some critics piled on, grumbling about the rain-offs and din of airplanes and sirens.

Yet the final two decades continued to showcase up-and-coming conductors and soloists. A near-annual series of Jazz at Lewisohn Stadium concerts featured headliners like Louis Armstrong, Anita O’Day, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz. Dance companies joined the Philharmonic, including the New York City Ballet, Fokine Russian Ballet and Spain’s José Greco Dance Company. And there were themed evenings devoted to Vienna, Italy, France and ‘folk songs from around the world’.

Especially notable were the show-must-go-on moments. Some 3,500 listeners endured heavy rain on 27 July 1949 to hear 21-year-old pianist Leon Fleisher give his only stadium performance, in both Franck’s Symphonic Variations and Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. When a violent thunderstorm destroyed the Stadium’s acoustical shell in 1942, the next evening, Reiner, violinist Jascha Heifetz and the Philharmonic played an all-Brahms programme under a makeshift tent; at intermission, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia promised a new shell for the following season.

Change came in 1964 when the New York Philharmonic musicians signed their first 52-week contract, tying them to the recently opened Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall). Mayor Robert F Wagner announced that the Met would be taking over and the city would provide $200,000 to support the performances and pay for renovations. The Met embraced the venture, offering 28 performances, partly as a means of fulfilling contractual obligations with its orchestra. Opening night, on 21 June 1965, drew a crowd of 20,000 listeners and a bit of natural drama. Amid distant lightning and thunder, soprano soloist Renata Tebaldi emerged ‘bouffant, Primavera-like, in green chiffon’, according to The New York Times, and performed selections by Verdi, Rossini and Puccini.

Those two summers brought names like Beverly Sills, Regina Resnik, George Shirley and Richard Tucker, but starry casts and hopes were short-lived. City College had already announced plans to pull the stadium down in 1967. Though demolition was delayed until 1973, it prematurely cut short the Met’s plans. Guggenheimer died in 1966, two years after stepping down.

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Would Lewisohn Stadium have survived if New York’s architectural preservation movement had arrived sooner? Impossible to say. ‘It was seen as progress,’ Drucker says of the demolition, adding that the Philharmonic was soon playing for larger audiences in Central Park. ‘The outdoor venues will always exist because people love to go to places that are unique,’ he adds. Indeed, this season, the Philharmonic have evoked the egalitarian spirit of Lewisohn as its musicians have travelled the five boroughs giving pop-up concerts from a lorry, dubbed the Bandwagon. These programmes may lack the stadium’s monumental aura, but they offer a similarly open-armed approach to newcomers