Mary Louise Curtis Bok, who intended the school she founded in 1924 to be a place where "students shall learn to think and express their thoughts against a background of quiet culture," may not have had this building in mind. But Curtis' new Lenfest Hall, opening with ceremonies Tuesday, is a remarkable achievement of culture - and, in key places, quiet.
The 105,000-square-foot building, in the 1600 block of Locust Street, bridges a facilities gap between Curtis and other schools, giving it dormitories for half its 160 or so students, a cafeteria, additional chamber music rehearsal rooms, teaching studios, and a climate-controlled vault for rare instruments.
On the second floor, with sweeping views of St. Mark's Church and Center City skyscrapers, is a new orchestra rehearsal hall. Structurally isolated from the rest of the building, it's three times the size of the previous space in Field Concert Hall and grants the orchestra something it never had before: pristine silence. Thanks to double-layered windows with a generous buffer of air in between, it promises to be an ideal recording space.
Curtis, which historically has housed its students in nearby apartments, has explored the idea of dorms off and on for years. An orchestra rehearsal hall also has been on the wish list; most recently, Curtis flirted with the idea of buying the ballroom of the Barclay next door and breaking through. Nearby plots of land were eyed and dismissed as not nearby enough.
But when H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest became Curtis' chairman, he took action. He and his wife, Marguerite, bought the former Locust Club on the 1600 block of Locust Street, plus two flanking parcels, and gave them to the school. They eventually put $30 million toward the project's $65 million cost, corralling the Annenberg Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the state in an oft-repeated funding quartet that has now run its course. More than 60 donors eventually joined in.
Lenfest Hall opens on time, several million dollars under budget, and fully funded.
You travel a century or more on the walk from the new Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates building to the three former mansions near Rittenhouse Square that have housed - and will continue to house - one of the world's elite conservatories. Curtis culture is tradition-laden and highly codified. While it's true that students today wear shorts and can text with the best of their young peers, a certain Old World formality reigns, taking its essence in part from the ornate interiors, oil paintings, and Wednesday teas that are part of the Curtis experience.
A new building brings trepidation and questions. Will pianists in dorms, no longer living in the same quarters with pianos, be able to practice whenever they want? (The school says yes, and has purchased more than 20 new Steinways to make sure.) Will students housed together spend more time socializing than boning up on their Pischna Technical Studies for piano? (No one knows.)
And how will bifurcating the campus affect life?
"Seeing how they are assimilating so much faster, how they are engaging each other in English right away, it seems to be working," said Elizabeth Warshawer, Curtis executive vice president, last week as international students moved in and mingled over cafeteria eggs and coffee. "Music is the universal language, but so is food."
A new social order is on the way. Curtis' common room - now named for former director Gary Graffman and his wife, Naomi - has always been a gathering space. But now, in addition to the cafeteria, there's a media room (with Ping-Pong table); a fifth-floor terrace garden currently producing eggplant, tomatillos, squash, and terrific views; and numerous other smaller nooks.
(Curtis' youngest wards - sometimes prodigies of ages in the single digits - will continue to live off campus with parents or guardians.)
The building has also been the occasion for Curtis to become something of an art gallery. Lenfest has provided the school, through a combination of gifts and loans, dozens of works, including Stella's The Monk and the Condemned Man from 1998, a John Fulton Folinsbee, and works of other Pennsylvania impressionists. Walls are filled with several phulkaris from Punjab - colorful, intricate textiles given by board member Sheldon M. Bonovitz and his wife, Jill. Board member Sueyun P. Locks, director of the Locks Gallery, has assisted in the mounting and placing of acquisitions.
Locks is working on a project to reprint historic photographs of Curtis musicians from the school's archive to place throughout the building. "It's a great way to tell the Curtis story," she said.
In all, from Lenfest and others, Lenfest Hall houses about 70 works - so many, in fact, that Curtis' board has named an ad hoc art committee to handle questions relating to gifts and loans.
"You can see [Lenfest's] passions in the artwork - there are ships and boats. It's an eclectic, wonderful collection," says Warshawer. A new bust of the man himself sits on a pedestal on the first floor, his contented gaze rendered in bronze.
Amid the art, students last week were discovering what the building has to offer.
For percussionists, there's a new studio on the second floor rather than in the basement, as it was in the old building.
"It's not too loud. It was really loud downstairs in the basement," said Mari Yoshinaga, trying out the new studio on the building's sunny south side. Triple-pane windows ensure that sounds of the snares, bass drums, and crotales don't escape onto quiet Latimer Street.
When it's time for full-orchestra rehearsal, drummers, harpists, and double-bass players now can roll their unwieldy instruments across the corridor and right into the big hall.
Teaching studios are outfitted with recording and playback equipment for lessons. Double-thick doors prevent distraction from other students' playing. Internet2 capability is built in, enabling students and faculty to give and take master classes from around the globe.
Getting to groundbreaking took years, but once the project began it went swiftly - through a recession or two, a building trades' strike, and the unfortunate shadow of the Philadelphia Orchestra's bankruptcy. To some extent, the fates of Curtis and the orchestra are intertwined, as the latter provides much of Curtis' instrumental faculty.
The emergence of Lenfest Hall in the midst of so much chaos makes Curtis leaders seem slightly embarrassed by their success, but no one takes the future for granted.
Warshawer and others are working on a business plan to create a summer adult-education program for revenue to offset the increased operational costs brought on by the new building.
No one can say where these new ventures will lead for a school that, in previous years, has perhaps spent less time peering into the future than looking longingly over its shoulder at the past.
"What's going to happen here as an incubator is unknown," said Warshawer. "But to put together this kind of talent with new technology - who knows what can happen?"
Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "ArtsWatch," at www.philly.com/artswatch.