Architecture as Frozen Music: An Appreciation of Kleinhans Music Hall

Located at 3 Symphony Circle in Buffalo, NY, the 2,400 seat Kleinhans Music Hall is one of the finest acoustical concert halls ever built in America. The principle architect was Eliel Saarinen, who is most famous for his National Museum of Finland. His son, Eero, designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the TWA Flight Center in NYC, Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C, and had a hand in helping with the Kleinhans project.

On a recent excursion to the Queen City, I was able to swing by this graceful masterpiece in the heart of the Allentown Historic District. There are several notable features that strike the senses about this building. The reflecting pool is certainly one. The shape of the building is another (some say it is shaped like a cello, while others contend that it is most certainly a violin). But it is the acoustics inside that have garnered Kleinhans’ international reputation as a world class performance venue. Pianist Arthur Rubenstein once said, “Any artist gives his best in a hall such as this.”

Text and photos by George Cassidy Payne

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Eliel Saarinen’s aim was to create “an architectural atmosphere…so as to tune the performers and the public alike into a proper mood of performance and receptiveness.” 
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The original design had a different architect and a different agenda all together. It was going to be an ostentatious Neoclassical building that dominated the entire neighborhood. Saarinen had an alternative vision. He wanted a building that would compliment the other structures around it, and sit humbly yet impressively in its own unique environment. 
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Kleinhans Music Hall hosts a variety of concerts, performances, lectures, graduation ceremonies, and private events. In 1967, four months after Buffalo was rocked by the race riots/uprisings, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered an address to a packed audience. The title of King’s talk was “The Future of Integration.”  
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This statue of the great composer was dedicated on December 28, 1977 by the Federation of Italian- American Societies of Western New York. There is another statue of Chopin on the property, which pays homage to the long and distinguished history of Polish culture in Buffalo. 
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Even though the building has its share of wear and tear, it has maintained a dignified appearance over the past 78 years. The building was started in the late 30’s but not opened until 1940. Funded, designed, and built during the depression, the building would never have come to fruition without the generous support of Edward and Mary Seaton Klenhans, who left 1 million in their will to see that the building would be constructed, and that their beloved city of Buffalo would have the music hall that it deserves. 
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Musical scales?
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In the right light, and at the right time of day, the building seems like it has been there forever. Fittingly, this picture reminded me of the saying: “Architecture is frozen music.”
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Allentown is a diverse neighborhood made up of lifelong residents, African -Americans, Hispanics, and refugees from all over the world. Symphony Circle, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, is not an elitist space that feels closed off to the public. It is free flowing, democratic, integrated, and full of interesting faces and sounds. 

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