Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts
600 Penn Avenue,
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Loew’s Penn Theater was constructed on the site of the 19th Century Hotel Anderson, which was demolished in 1925 after nearly half a century. Marcus Loew selected the Chicago architectural firm of Rapp & Rapp to design his Pittsburgh house, which was called the greatest movie palace to be built between Chicago and New York at that time.
Built in the Rapp brothers' usual French Baroque style, the Loew’s Penn Theater could seat 2,669, and matched the grandeur of their most opulent theaters in Chicago or New York. The 50-foot lobby with a grand marble staircase was ringed by tall gilded Corinthian columns, and European crystal chandeliers hung from its ceiling. Artwork by Renaissance masters hung on its walls.
The spectacular auditorium was equally as impressive, its towering proscenium arch decorated with gilding, and the cove-lit ceiling hung with chandeliers. The Robert Morton unit organ was opened by organist Dick Leibert. It was sadly destroyed in a flood in the late-1930’s, and was hailed as one of the largest of its time.
On opening night, September 6, 1927, a live stage show and vaudeville acts preceded the main feature. It was hugely successful, and soon the Penn Theater was nicknamed Pittsburgh’s “Temple of Cinema”.
However, by the 1950’s, the Penn Theater had begun to slide into decline, and, with competition from television, had a harder and harder time filling its seats. Unable to turn a profit any longer, it began to fall into disrepair. The Penn Theater finally closed in 1964.
After sitting vacant for a handful of years, the Penn Theater was slated for demolition to build a new parking lot in its place. However, in 1967, the then-homeless Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra stepped in at the right time, and saved the Penn Theater.
It found the faded but still grand old movie palace to be exactly what it was looking for, and a massive $10 million reconstruction and restoration project began, transforming the Loew’s Penn Theater from a movie theater to an orchestra hall.
While most of its original features were restored to their original appearance, the most noticeable change, at least to the exterior, was the removal of the old marquee and the moving of the main entrance around the corner onto Penn Street to what had formerly been a diner, and transforming the old main entrance on 6th Street into a huge 40-foot tall window, which extended the original arched window to ground level.
A new five floor addition to the rear of the building extended the stage space, as well as adding more dressing rooms, rehersal space and music library.
On September 10, 1971, the new Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts had its grand opening, amidst a great deal of ceremony and celebration, with many of the city’s government officials on hand, as well as celebrities like Marion Anderson, James Earl Jones, Gregory Peck and Agnes de Mille. The new hall’s namesake, Henry J. Heinz II, gave an address.
In 1995, Heinz Hall, was given another renovation, costing over $6 million, which provided a new orchestra shell, enhanced acoustics, state of the art lighting and sound equipment, as well as new gold leaf, new carpeting and auditorium seats.
The spectacular Heinz Hall remains the home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony. Along with the nearby Benedum Center (the one-time Stanley Theater), the Heinz is the centerpiece of the city’s reinvigorated and lively Cultural District. Every year, more than half a million guests attend Symphony concerts, children’s concerts and touring Broadway shows at Heinz Hall and its neighbor, the Benedum, making it one of Pittsburgh’s greatest treasures.
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