PITTSBURGH, PA — When the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra takes the stage at Heinz Hall on Friday, the occasion will be more than the first time a live performance has taken place there in 18 months. It will also be a belated birthday party.
On September 10, 1971, the old cinema on the corner of Penn Avenue, Downtown, made its debut as a performing arts space with actors such as Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones and Gregory Peck to mark the occasion . It would be the new home of the symphony, which had performed at Carnegie Music Hall and the Syria Mosque in Oakland.
Outside of pandemic times, the symphony gives more than 40 weeks of concerts there a year and the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony also plays there. Heinz Hall also hosts select shows from the Pittsburgh Broadway Series, Pittsburgh Speakers Series, Pops concerts, and children’s concerts.
Those who attend events in this opulent space may not realize that the shell of the building that was transformed into Heinz Hall was nearly demolished in the late 1960s.
The building had been Loew’s Penn Theater from 1927 until 1964, when the theater closed and sat vacant for five years and was nearly bulldozed for parking. But Pittsburgh philanthropist Henry J. Heinz II and Pittsburgh Symphony Society Charles Denby led the effort to transform the dilapidated structure into a cutting-edge space for the symphony.
A Howard Heinz Endowment donation to the symphony helped make what the society called a theater “to encourage, foster, and perpetuate the performing arts in the Greater Pittsburgh area.” Judging by the money still being poured into it, Heinz Hall will continue this mission in the luxurious surroundings that customers have long become accustomed to.
According to the symphony orchestra’s website, the hall received a $3.5 million renovation this summer to mark its 50th anniversary. Work done while the space was closed included painting and restoring ornate plaster gold leaf and glazing in the Grand Lobby and Grand Tier Foyer. Backstage and the Dorothy Porter Simmons Regency rooms have been revamped and several accessibility projects have been completed.
The work was funded by private foundations, the Allegheny Regional Asset District and matching funds from Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, according to the symphony.
These renovations will be on display Friday and will be observed by symphony attendees who will notice other changes to Heinz Hall, these related to the pandemic. For example, new touchless taps have been installed in all washrooms.
Symphony officials said that through testing and investment, the hall’s excellent ventilation and air quality are guaranteed. Enhanced cleaning and disinfection techniques will be used in all spaces used by the public, musicians and staff.
Heinz Hall will adhere to any mask mandates that may be put in place by government authorities. Symphony officials have called it a mask-friendly building where people who prefer to wear masks can do so regardless of their vaccination status.
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