Saturday, December 10, 2022 Dec 10, 2022
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ARTS A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Symphony

Lots of things, in fact. Cost overruns, land swaps, "angels" to the rescue. At one point, a milk carton saved the whole deal.
By Skip Hollandsworth |

Once upon a time, in the mid-Sixties, some of the powerful businessmen who ran Dallas were pondering how to improve the city. Then somebody came up with a really crazy idea. How about building a new place for the local symphony to play its tunes? Something classy, don’t you know, with fine red-velvet chairs and a big old gleaming chandelier and maybe a brass spittoon in each toilet stall. Let’s make it just like those fine opera halls over in Europe that our wives visit on their summer ladies’ tours. Then let’s see those Easterners call us a bunch of hicks.

Back then, of course, everyone searched for ways the city’s image could be brightened. The Kennedy assassination still smarted, the pro football team was still wretched, and network television hadn’t yet discovered what a great weekly series could be made about a bunch of mean Dallas oil men who still live with their parents on a ranch. So Dallas needed some help with public relations. But a symphony hall? All right, sure, everyone’s for culture and all that-it improves the soul, makes you think sweet thoughts, etc., etc.-but face it. What’s really important is that the orchestra doesn’t embarrass us by showing up for concerts in leisure suits or playing a bunch of Lawrence Welk tunes. Not that many people go to the orchestra, so would anybody care that much about where an orchestra sits?

The answer, incredibly, has turned out to be yes. This month, construction begins on the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, the most expensive symphony hall in the city’s lifetime, a $75 million creation that some musicians believe could become one of the top five concert halls in the world when it is completed, perhaps by early 1989. A project that was mentioned as a chauvinistic lark twenty years ago is now a staggering 2,200-seat reality, one destined to attract international attention and perhaps bring forth a musical renaissance in a city that has never particularly been devoted to orchestral performance. Designed by the great architect I.M. Pei, with the acoustical work done by the most famous name in his field, Russell Johnson, the symphony center could also be the springboard that hurls the rapidly improving Dallas Symphony into the elite ranks of the world’s orchestras.

Beyond the cultural impact of a new concert hall, however, the story about how Dallas got the thing in the first place is extraordinary, occasionally veering toward the bizarre. Never before in this city’s history has such a diverse cast of characters crossed paths with the aim of getting one building built, And given the bewildering string of unexpected complications that kept getting in the way of the new symphony hall, some people were sure the project would be abandoned long before completion.

But it wasn’t. In many ways, the creation of the concert hall is a result of the classic high-stakes game that’s so well known in Texas, in which everyone squares off for a slice of the choicest land. But it is also a result of astonishing generosity and perseverance and remarkable luck. At one point, the whole symphony hall venture was literally saved by a carton of milk-and that’s just one of many strange events that have taken place. The new symphony center, named after a low-key Dallas business executive that few have ever heard of (a remarkable story in itself), is obviously one of the most unusual enterprises ever carried out in Dallas-especially considering that it was largely promoted by city leaders whose attitude toward the arts could have been summed up in the words of former mayor Robert Thornton: “I’ll fight like hell for the symphony just as long as I don’t have to go hear it.”

The seeds of the Meyerson Symphony Center were indeed planted in Dallas by 1967, when then-mayor J. Erik Jonsson suggested the city acquire land downtown for a new performing arts center near the area that is now the site of the Dallas City Hall. By 1971, a committee, led by the comically odd team of playboy city councilman Garry Weber and the distinguished, elegant Dallas arts benefactor, Mrs. Margaret Mc-Dermott, began inquiring as to what kind of private support there would be to build a new concert hall. Weber (now a Dallas stockbroker) was mostly known for squiring around beautiful women to parties and could barely tell the difference between Brahms and Brahman bulls, but he did realize one very important thing: the fine arts sell. You put up a classy arts building downtown, and some developer is going to want to build near it. Businesses enjoy the status that comes with being next to something like a concert hall and museum. Culture attracts people and money.

A much-improved version of this theory, of course, would be used a decade later in the early Eighties for the Dallas Arts District, involving $2.6 billion in public and private monies, where the new Dallas Museum of Art now sits and the symphony hall will be. But in 1971, the concept was still a bit suspect. When McDermott and two of her high-powered friends, Mrs. Storey Stemmons and Mrs. Frank Nick, called on rich acquaintances for concert hall support, they came up empty-handed. In six months, they could only raise $1,000. One night, McDermott even invited to dinner a man known to give large donations to the arts. When he found out she wanted to discuss a downtown symphony hall, he said no, he wasn’t coming.

That’s perhaps the best way to understand how cultural attitudes have changed in this city. In 1983, the Dallas Symphony embarked on the greatest fundraising campaign for a single project ever undertaken by a symphony orchestra in this country, hoping to raise $39 million; in 1971, it couldn’t raise more than a thousand bucks. During this time the Dallas Symphony Orchestra was slowly going broke; its audiences weren’t large and no one was contributing money for an endowment. In 1974 it had to cancel its season due to a lack of funds. Meanwhile, the city council would, at the drop of the hat, conduct rabid debates about what role, if any, the city should have in promoting the arts. The arguments were usually dominated by Mayor Wes Wise, who held that city tax money shouldn’t go to a concert hall “when there are people in West Dallas who do not have a pair of shoes.” Obviously no money was coming out of the city for the symphony (in fairness, neither was any money sent out to buy shoes for the West Dallas poor), and a new concert hall seemed about as likely as the state legislature prohibiting open beer cans in our cars.

By 1977, however, mostly through the efforts of city manager George Schrader, a new mood developed. The city council boldly commissioned yet another study conducted by world-renowned urban planner Kevin Lynch at a cost of approximately $50,800. It was Lynch’s company that first mentioned the idea of a downtown arts district, anchored by the museum at one end, a symphony hall at the other, and studded with shops, restaurants, art galleries, smaller theaters, even an opera or ballet hall. The face of downtown would be forever changed. No longer would it be a hostile facade of glass towers, but a place for people.

The city came up with a bond package to present to the voters that included $45 million for new cultural facilities. More than $11.5 million would go to the symphony, which then was saying the new concert hall would be finished by 1980.

Everyone was very excited. Only one thing was overlooked-the voters. Somebody forgot to tell them what a great idea it was to spend city money on the arts. In June 1978, 54 percent of them voted against the package, and the symphony was back at square one.

The museum, wisely, had privately raised money to buy a piece of property in the Arts District, where the land prices were already beginning to rise dramatically from a mere $10 a square foot. The symphony was floundering. “They dragged their heels,” says Paula Peters, the Central Dallas Association’s Arts District programs director who acts as a liaison between the different arts district groups. “And as a result, the real estate developers got in ahead of them.”

More to the point, the savvy Trammell Crow got in ahead of the symphony. He bought the one piece of property across from the museum that the symphony had its eyes on. And he refused to sell it, even when the voters finally approved, in a November 1979 bond election, $2.25 million to help finance land acquisition for the symphony hall. Crow had always wanted to build his showcase high-rise there (the LTV Center, one of the most splendid downtown buildings), and this was the perfect spot.

Everyone saw what was happening. At the first mention of an arts district, the developers had come lumbering in and land values had taken off. The speculation on Arts District property had driven the price up to more than $100 a square foot by 1981, and there were no signs of stopping (the price of Arts District land, in fact, would hit $300 a square foot by 1986). It was a strange period in Dallas government. The public/private partnerships that Dallas had become so famous for in the past, in which the city would offer cozy deals to developers in order to get publicly beneficial developments, were now falling apart-and of all people, it was the famous Trammell Crow who was taking the heat.

Still, it was not Crow’s fault that the symphony leadership wasn’t able to raise more money, and if he hadn’t grabbed the land, any of a half a dozen other developers maneuvering through the Arts District would have.

Nevertheless, by June 1981, the symphony’s executive board knew it couldn’t afford the Arts District. Its $2.25 million from the city for land acquisition (along with $750,000 raised privately) would not buy a big enough site. The board voted to look for a new symphony hall site somewhere else in Dallas. I.M. Pei, who had then been hired by the symphony to design the new symphony hall, was devastated. He argued that an arts district had to include a symphony hall and would look silly with just a museum. Indeed, the future of the Arts District hung in the balance. The big campaign to change downtown into something with personality was becoming just another real estate ploy. The Dallas Morning News even ran an editorial begging one of the city’s rich families to make a huge donation for the symphony. The editorial’s headline proclaimed that it was “time for angels.”

No one could have ever guessed where that angel was going to come from. There was one affordable location in the Arts District, a couple of blocks from the museum, that looked good for a symphony hall. It was right next to the old Borden dairy processing plant. If the symphony could just get Borden to donate a parcel of its land, there would be enough room for a proper-sized concert hall. Those who studied the Arts District knew the Borden plant, stuck right in the middle of the area, was a problem, but Borden wasn’t budging, except for the right price. Who could ever get the Borden people to change their minds?

It happened to be the new Dallas mayor, Jack Evans, a man who cares nothing about symphony music and will say so (“I grew up fighting in the streets, not going to the orchestra”). But he did have an extraordinary passion to see the Arts District built, and he had one other little advantage. He was president of Cullum Companies Inc., which operates the Tom Thumb supermarket chain.

It was sheer, utter luck: the man who shows up as Dallas mayor in mid-1981, right in the midst of the symphony hall crisis, happens to be a close buddy of the chairman of the board of Borden, Eugene Sullivan, a man who happens to care deeply whether Tom Thumb continues using Borden milk in its stores.

“Well,” says Evans in his matter-of-fact voice, “I gave old Eugene a call and told him he had an antiquated plant in our downtown and he needed to rebuild and what did he want to do about it? We talked about a land swap and some other things, and so he finally decided to fly down here. We had breakfast at the Mansion, and I talked to him about the city, how we were dedicated to the city, and how we needed that Arts District, and that if he donated part of that land to the city [and sold the rest], I could get him another place to put his dairy plant. He didn’t call a committee meeting or anything. He just looked at me and said, ’How would you like that land donated?’ “

The meeting took less than two hours. “I about flipped out of the car when he agreed to do it,” says Evans. “Of course, I’d be a fool to tell you that those Borden milk cartons in Tom Thumb didn’t have any influence.”

On September 18, 1981, the Dallas Symphony announced it would build its new building in the Arts District on 60,000 square feet, 25,000 feet of which were given free by Borden. In return, the city would give Borden thirty acres in South Dallas to build a new plant. After an exhausting two years, almost everything seemed set.

Well, not everything. There was just one other little task-how to raise the enormous sum of $49.5 million just to build the hall.

The city government agreed to another bond election for the symphony, this one in 1982, to raise $28.6 million for a concert hall. But the city council made it absolutely clear to symphony officials that it was not going to give another cent to the construction of the hall.

So the symphony went on a massive campaign to get the voters to approve the bond package; their slogan was “A Great Concert Hall for a Great City,” a formula few in Dallas had contemplated before. And if they ever had, did they really believe it? After all, the symphony had only about 11,000 subscribers (now there arc 24,000), and no one seemed terribly worried when the symphony’s fine young conductor, Eduardo Mata, hinted during the bond campaign that if the hall was not built, he would leave.

“But I also think something significant was happening,” says Henry S. Miller Jr., the Dallas real estate baron who has been a strong supporter of the symphony since the Forties. “The men in Dallas were finally able to admit they had changed. We in Texas had had such a frontier mentality for so long, it just wasn’t manly to love classical music. That wall, finally, was ready to come down. There were more men here who were interested in art for art’s sake-and even businessmen who weren’t all that interested realized how important arts were to bringing good business here.”

Voters approved the $28.6 million for the hall (the male-female ratio in the vote is not known), and then Miller led an eleven-member steering committee to find private donors. Their goal was to raise $40 million, more than half of which would go to the construction of the new hall. It seemed like an impossible task, especially coming on the heels of a major fundraising drive by the Dallas Museum of Art, which was raising nearly $40 million for its new building, Never had so much money poured from the private sector in Dallas for anything.

The game plan was to try to quickly get a large share of contributions from relatively few people. Once that money was in, the symphony hoped, others would see that the financial goal was achievable and climb on the bandwagon.

One of the big fundraisers, Bill Seay, former chairman of the board of Southwestern Life and then president of the Dallas Symphony Association, would approach prospective donors with the line that the new symphony hall would have the same positive impact on Dallas that the Dallas/Fort Worth Regional Airport had already had. Henry Miller was more subtle. He would show up at people’s homes, cock his head, and in his gentle voice begin to talk about the city’s need for a symphony hall. “He was amazing,” says one of Miller’s associates on the symphony board. “The light in the room would shine off his bald head like a halo, and he’d talk about a million dollars as if it were nothing, and he’d walk out the door with a pledge in his hand.”

Miller and his group raised more than $16 million before the fund drive officially started with a luncheon in January 1983 at the Fairmont Hotel; $5 million came from Margaret McDermott, who had been with the project from the start. But that was by no means the end of it. No one could have predicted, amidst this first flush of success, that a whole new set of problems was about to emerge.

Just as symphony backers were sighing with relief, the following things took place: 1) I.M. Pei decided he needed twice as much land as he had on the original site, which threw everything into chaos. 2) The city government began a series of land swaps to get 40,000 square feet of land added to the concert hall site and 3) attempted another land swap to give Borden a piece of property in return for the original donation the dairy company made for the concert hall. 4) The state attorney general’s office sued the city over one of the land swaps, trying to block it because one of the parcels of land had already been given to the state to use as an exit ramp for the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, which ran by the Arts District. 5) Borden said it couldn’t move from its downtown location until at least March 1, 1985, when its new plant would be ready-and that would hold up construction | of the new hall for even a longer period of time. 6) The New York real estate development company that was going to buy the rest of the Borden property backed out, leaving that land open to another developer who might not work so closely with the city in making sure the concert hall got built.

It was a series of crippling blows. Al-though the already convoluted situation was made much more complex-with Arts District developers circling one another warily, each looking for the best deal, as the city desperately searched for ways to satisfy everyone-the simple result was that no construction could begin until the land swaps were made, nor could construction start until Borden got off the land. Pei couldn’t even finish his final designs until he knew how much land he had. Meanwhile, Henry Miller and cohorts were trying to tell potential donors that everything was running smoothly.

Amazingly, the symphony had scheduled its big ground-breaking ceremony just as the latest outbreak of bad news came. The event, held April 29, 1983, was big and festive, as 10,000 balloons floated overhead and Mayor Evans, wearing a hard hat, stood shakily on a backhoe. But the ceremony was also pointless, because after it was over, not another shovelful of dirt could be turned. Things were at a standstill.

The symphony hall, once again, found itself stuck like a piece on a Monopoly board, trying to tap dance past the most powerful developers in the game and looking for some sort of relief before they had to cash it all in.

The symphony’s executive director, Leonard Stone, remembers this period “as my most frustrating moment. The project had stumbled to a halt and I didn’t know what to say. I was completely miserable.”

The lawsuit between the city and state dragged on for more than a year, while the land sat vacant. In an astonishing, unprecedented bailout, the Central Business District Association (an organization that promotes downtown) received in late 1983 a $26 million loan from a consortium of three Dallas banks to purchase the extra Borden property and keep it in friendly hands so the city could complete its land deals. The city also found itself tacking on enormous outlays for the Arts District just to keep everything from falling apart-including $20.4 million for a parking garage that was not in the original budget. Never had a city gone to so much trouble to keep one building alive.

Slowly, things began to work out through 1984, and enthusiasm didn’t wane. The lawsuit was settled when the state agreed to let the eventual owner of the property build over the right-of-way. Leonard Stone told a newspaper reporter, apparently straight-faced, that the Arts District could become to Dallas “what the Champs Elysées is to Paris.” Pei finally completed his designs. A new arts consultant’s report came out suggesting that $150 million worth of arts facilities be added to the Arts District, including four theaters, some galleries, an $86 million dance and opera hall, and even new studios for the classical music station.

And then the word began to leak out in late 1984 that the symphony hall was going to cost far more than what anyone had predicted.

It was going from $49 million to $75 million. A $26 million jump. The news, to put it lightly, was not well received.

“I almost leaped through the window,” says one city official. “I thought, ’no one will ever accept this, and the city sure as hell won’t be able to raise the money.’”

Even though the year-long delays over the land swaps had added somewhat to the costs, the city’s outside consultants kept assuring the city that the hall would still cost $49 million. Says Cliff Keheley, director of public works for the City of Dallas, whose office was in charge of managing the concert hall project: “All I can say is that our consultants just didn’t know.”

More than $6 million extra was needed because of the increased size of the building, and $3.4 million was added to the cost for installing a limestone exterior and marble lobby floor. The symphony had not planned for more than $5 million worth of acoustical additions or $2.4 million tacked on for revised construction estimates and $3.9 million in added consultant fees. The symphony was responsible for any cost over the $28.6 million the city allocated through its bond program.

And all this occurred before construction started. No telling what kind of cost increases could happen once building began. And what would this news do to potential symphony hall contributors? “The executive board of the symphony,” remembers Miller, “got together to hear the news. We had no choice about what to do. We all committed ourselves to raise the extra money.”

But they certainly could have used another angel right about then. Unbelievably, one showed up-a man known for his big electronics company, his commando raids to save his employees, his short haircut, but never, ever for his love of classical music.

H. Ross Perot.

Ross Perot? One wonders if God Himself could have predicted this one.

“I was in Chicago,” recalls Liener Temer-lin, the chairman of the board of the Bozell & Jacobs advertising agency who was then president of the symphony board, “and my wife called and said Ross Perot was anxious to visit with me. I said, ’What in the world for?’ So I called him back. He got on the phone and said right out that he wanted to give the symphony $10 million. I blinked and told him I thought the symphony board would go along with the idea. That was, of course, pretty much an understatement.”

It was one of the largest gifts ever made to an arts organization in America, and all that Perot asked was that the symphony hall be named after his buddy, the president of Perot’s Electronic Data Systems Inc., Morton H. Meyerson. Meyerson had been chairman of the symphony’s Concert Hall Committee and an integral part of the success of EDS, but he had worked largely in the background. Suddenly, his name was going to be put on one of the most famous buildings in Dallas. After reading about Perot’s donation, a gift that ensured Dallas’s place in the higher musical firmament, the common man in Dallas put down his newspaper and said, “Mort who?”

Yet who was complaining? The Perot gift certainly went a long way toward easing fears about raising enough money for the concert hall, now tagged at $75 million. The symphony association’s share of the cost had increased to $39 million, nearly double the original $20.9 million estimate. Meanwhile, the city council, knowing that there might be still more cost surprises later on, quietly had the interest from the $28.6 million in city bonds that voters had approved added to the construction cost total. The interest comes to $7.4 million, even though that money was never part of the original deal the city presented to the voters. City officials said that they could have always applied that interest money to the concert hall if they so desired. Even Temerlin, the consummate ad man who scoffs at the slightest suggestion that there were problems, says Perot’s gift “helped others open up with their generosity.” By February 1985, the symphony had collected about $32 million of the $39 million it needed for the concert hall, and about half of the $15 million endowment fund it was seeking.

But at least one thing seemed evident by the spring of 1985. The concert hall was ready to go up. The money seemed in place, the symphony association was well on its way to raising a record $46 million, Borden was pacified, the land was ready.

And yet-by now, you’re probably used to this line-something else got in the way. This time they were little details, such as legal wrangling between the city and the group that now owned the old Borden property. .. sending out bids to find out who would do the concrete work on the hall. . .negotiating about how the parking garage would get built. Not until September 26,1985, did the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center have its big ground-breaking. That is, its second big ground-breaking.

The symphony hall is more than two and a half years behind construction, more than $25 million over budget, and one still wonders what kind of treacherous path lies before it. So far, according to Keheley, the construction is progressing on schedule. This past February, the excavation of the center was complete. By the summer, the columns, slabs, and walls had been laid in the basement. Now, as the construction crews move to the main level, where the auditorium must be built to perfect specifications to obtain the right acoustics, the really excruciating work begins.

“We’re past the point of any more surprises,” says Keheley. “All the major construction items have been bid out. We’ve dug the hole, and we’re coming back out.”

But Keheley remembers the last public project of this magnitude, the Dallas City Hall, which was also designed by Pei and finally cost $48 million, more than double the original estimate. Pei, notorious for bringing in projects late and over budget, has an even more complicated building on his hands this time that may require even more work than originally estimated, as in the construction, for example, of the enormous lens-like carved windows that will surround the lobby. Moreover, the acousticians will be watching every bit of work that goes on in the main auditorium. The acoustics are extremely complex, require the finest touch, and if the smallest thing is not constructed properly, the acousticians will probably require that it be redone. After all, the symphony can build a grand building-but if the sound is less than tremendous, the years of work will come to nothing.

In other words, don’t be surprised if the completion date is moved back further than the start of 1989. “This is a once-in-a-life-time building,” says Keheley. “It is not like building an office building. This is a monument to this city. There are no shortcuts, and there will be a lot of long hours.”

The Meyerson Symphony Center has already suffered its share of criticism. As further delays crop up, the project will undergo more second-guessing and cross-examination. But the point for symphony backers is that despite it all, the work continues. In August, they received another large, six-figure gift.

“You only get this chance once in a century to build such a concert hall,” says Stone, “and you can’t compromise. Excellence is achieved through a passionate commitment to stick it through. And when the Morton H. Meyerson Center does open, the focus should not be on how long it took, or how much it cost, but how well we did it. In the year 2020, believe me, people aren’t going to read a magazine to find out all the effort it took. They’re going to listen to the music and say, ’My God, what did these people in Dallas know that no one else knew to make such a beautiful sound?’”