Would I be able to see it from the sky?
Flying into O'Hare International Airport last spring, I spotted the unmistakable Chicago skyline, then I looked for my alma mater, Northwestern University. Following the shoreline I found it easily, and then...was that it? Yes, the new music building! Northwestern University's Ryan Center for the Musical Arts, opened in 2015.
Two years old and already a landmark.
I'd heard a lot about this $117 million, state-of-the-art facility, built to replace the ramshackle music building where I took many of my classes back in the '80s. Even 30 years ago, the Music Administration Building ("M-A-B") was a dying, crumbling building; in fact, it's hard to believe that a top music school had such poor facilities for so long.
The outside of MAB looked vaguely charming on a sunny day, but more often it looked like a haunted house: an 1874 Victorian building surrounded by tall trees, standing on the edge of campus. Inside, it had the inadequate feeling of a building not created for its purpose. Formerly a women's dormitory, its converted bedrooms served as practice rooms for piano and vocal majors, divided in a way that required students to walk through one practice room to get to another. Its thin walls did little to contain the sound, a cacophony of pounding piano and wailing opera from dawn until late night. Theory, history and ear-training classes were held in the same building, where the lower floor famously flooded on a regular basis during the spring. And when it came to amenities -- ventilation, wiring, accessibility -- not so modern.
Administrators were marooned in MAB, well away from the rest of the music buildings -- the ones that housed the main concert hall, orchestra rehearsal rooms and studios for violin and other instruments. Those were located a little more than a half-mile away on the lake, a windy slog on a cold winter day or night in Chicago.
When I was a student at Northwestern, there was much talk about "doing something about MAB." They took a number of lame measures: the building received a paint job. To our chagrin, this came with the removal of the elaborate series of metal fire escapes students used to startle one other by climbing through each other's windows, despite stern rules forbidding it. No doubt this removed an attractive menace, but it did little to actually improve the experience.
How on earth did Northwestern's School of Music ever gather the will, the imagination, the funding, the land, the right architect and the right builder to replace this complete dud of a leftover building with the massive new monument to music that I could now see from the sky?
This question inspired my pilgrimage to Chicago last March: I wanted to talk to the woman behind it all, Toni-Marie Montgomery, Dean of Northwestern's Bienen School of Music since 2003.
I arrived at Northwestern mid-day, with some time to explore, so I took a stroll around the campus, visiting my old haunts: the student center (Norris), the library, the Rock, the dorm, the sorority house, even MAB.
I walked past MAB into Evanston, where I grabbed a latte from Peet's Coffee. (They even have a Peet's now!) As I walked toward the lake side of campus, the sun began to emerge, illuminating this sleek and impressive structure as I made my way toward it.
Designed by Chicago architects Goettsch Partners, the new Ryan Center for the Musical Arts stands on the lakeshore, next to the other music buildings that had been there in my day: Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, where I played in the Symphony Orchestra under Victor Yampolsky; and Regenstein Hall, where I practiced and had my violin lessons with Gerardo Ribeiro.
Those buildings were now sitting literally in the late-day shadow of the five-story, 152,000-square-foot Ryan Center. (Below is a video tour of the building, made by the architect.)
The new music building has practice rooms, classrooms, teaching studios, offices, student lounges and three performance venues: the 400-seat Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall; 120-seat McClintock Choral and Recital Room; and the 163-seat Shirley Welsh Ryan Opera Theater. From some certain angles the Z-shaped building looks enough like a giant ship that students have been known to call it the "S.S. Bienen."
But beyond the impressive capacity, its true soul lies in the way it generously dices up its ideal location into a kaleidoscope of picture-perfect vistas for those who work, teach, practice and learn inside.
Each room affords a slightly different view: from the entrance atrium's stories-high windows overlooking the lake; to the slice of campus from each practice-room window; to the giant glass back wall of the Galvin Recital Hall, where audience members can look across miles of lakefront to the distant Chicago skyline.
For Montgomery, it was a long road from her first derelict office in MAB to her current fourth-floor office in the Ryan Center, with its sparkling lake views. During her first two interviews for the job as Dean, Montgomery did not actually see the building where she would start working.
"They intentionally kept me away from it," said Montgomery. When she finally did see MAB, "I remember saying, 'This looks worse than any state institution at which I've worked!' And it was true."
Montgomery calls the new building her "12-year-old baby" because that is how long it took to make it happen.
It began a month after she started her job, when she found herself chatting with then-University President Henry Bienen in his office, in a much more modern building next to the dreaded MAB.
"At some point he said, 'Oh your building's not that bad,'" Montgomery said. "My jaw dropped, and the first thing that came out of my mouth was: 'Have you ever been in our building?' Because there's no way that someone would say that, if he had been in our building. And he said, no, he'd never been inside."
It was high time: at that point Bienen had been President for nine years. So Montgomery said, "I'll give you a tour."
"He brought an entourage -- the provost and some other staff," Montgomery said. "They came into my office and Henry said, 'Oh, this is not bad,' and I said, 'This is the best thing that you're going to see on the tour.'"
During the course of the tour, she showed him the building's many problem areas, including the frequently-flooding lower floor. As he saw more and more, Bienen's tone changed; in fact he reacted with the word "horrendous" three times. Following the tour, Bienen wrote Montgomery a letter that she still keeps in a frame, a letter in which he acknowledged the poor condition of the building and promised: "We'll do what we can."
"That was 2003," Montgomery said. "That first year, I got approval to use our own money to do a feasibility study: Is it possible to build a building like this, on lakefill?"
The "lakefill" is a land expansion into Lake Michigan that Northwestern created in the 1960s, on which Pick-Staiger and Regenstein Halls already stood. On this precious land was also a parking lot.
"This was the best location on campus, and what did we have? We had a surface parking lot," Montgomery said. This became the target site for the new building. "We wanted to be all together, a music village," Montgomery said. With the administrators across campus from most of the instrumental teachers and the concert hall, the music school's 650 students had to divide their time between two locations. "It was really like having two separate schools," she said. The new building would physically connect all the departments of the music school.
Even more than that, Montgomery wanted to have "facilities that match the excellence of the school -- of our students, our faculty, our alums. If you looked at MAB, certainly that was not the case; we had the worst building on campus. Despite that, our enrollment and application numbers remained the same. But I couldn't look at a prospective student and his or her parents in the eye, because I was embarrassed by those facilities and the fact that, in my office, you heard a voice lesson. It was always there."
In 2008, Bienen stepped down as president, and for the occasion the music school was re-named the Bienen School of Music. That year, Montgomery and Bienen made an announcement: "We announced, on the Pick-Staiger stage, with purple balloons that fell down from the ceiling, that we were going to build a building," and that it would include a recital hall to replace the derelict Lutkin Hall, which was right next to MAB.
There was only one problem, "We still didn't have the money."
The music school had lobbied its alumni for money, but that still wasn't enough. Frankly, even the most successful musicians usually don't make the kind of money that, say, hedge fund managers do. In order to build for the future of music, Montgomery needed to convince the larger university community of the importance of supporting the music school with this kind of a facility. It's not all that difficult to convince those who have dedicated their lives to music of the importance of music education. But the business school alums? The medical and law school graduates?
This is where it's significant that Northwestern has strived not only for excellence, but increasingly also for disciplinary cross-pollination. My own degree is a testament to that: though I studied in the music school, I created a degree that allowed me also to take a considerable number of classes in Northwestern's journalism school. This kind of cooperation between schools has become even more common and codified in the years since.
As plans moved forward, Montgomery worked to get the University to recognize the new building as a priority worthy of institutional support, and in the end the University came through. The building and its performing venues carry the names of some of the University's most generous donors, including the recital hall named for Mary B. Galvin (whom you may recognize as a founder of the Chicago-based Stradivari Society) and a choral and recital room named after David and Carol McClintock. The entire building is named after Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan, as is the opera theater (after Shirley Welsh Ryan).
It is revealing, that in dedicating the music school's new building, Pat Ryan, who is former chairman of the board of trustees for Northwestern, said that he and his wife Shirley, both non-music alumni, "have appreciated greatly the tremendous impact that the music school has had on the interdisciplinary education offered by our beloved University."
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