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This story by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
December 9, 1998. All rights reserved.
War Memorial’s Glorious Future
After a roller coaster of despair and discouragement,
hope and optimism, quiet introspection and formal meetings, Trenton’s
War Memorial reopens, restored to its original 1932 magnificence.
The Trenton landmark, built during the depression with the help of
thousands of pennies collected from Trenton schoolchildren, hosted
its last concert in the spring of 1994. Since then a team of state
officials, performing arts groups, and civic entities have worked
with a group of 80 consultants, contractors, and subcontractors to
bring the opulent hall back to life.
Designed by architect Louis Kaplan as a memorial to the fallen
and sailors of World War I, the building is a compendium of dazzling
decorative design that incorporates artistic motifs ranging from the
Egyptian to Art Nouveau via classical antiquity, the Renaissance,
and the Enlightenment. Its spectrum of materials include gold leaf,
pewter, and brass; terrazzo, terra cotta, and granite; wood, plaster,
velvet, and intensely colored Trenton-made ceramic tile.
Coupled to the conscientious artistic renovation are invisible
technical facilities for lighting and climate control, electricity
and plumbing, sound manipulation, stage lighting, and orchestral
as well as improved backstage facilities. Construction costs for the
renovation are close to $30 million, with an additional $34 million
in fees for consultants, permits, and management.
During its existence the War Memorial, its cornerstone dated 1930,
has been a focus for artistic and civic events. Among those who have
appeared at the building are Sergei Rachmaninoff, Vladimir Horowitz,
Marian Anderson, Fritz Kreisler, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Kirsten
Flagstad, Helen Traubel, Eleanor Steber, Lotte Lehmann, Placido
Frank Sinatra, Mirella Freni, and Louis Armstrong. Bill Cosby and
Bob Hope have entertained audiences there. Harry Truman, Dwight
and John F. Kennedy spoke from the steps of the building. And
of Trenton High School students had their graduation ceremonies there.
The 1,812-seat auditorium of the War Memorial receives its first
audiences on Saturday and Sunday, December 12 and 13, when the Greater
Trenton Symphony Orchestra, which has used the War Memorial as its
home since 1934, hosts a pair of holiday concerts with the Trenton
Children’s Chorus and Voices Chorale. The first, "Hats Off to
the Hard Hats," on Saturday, December 12, an invitation-only
primarily for the artisans and workers and their families, is expected
to fill the hall. The GTSO calls it "a thank you for four years
of skill and sweat." Patrons and donors to Voices Chorale are
"We ran simulated tests, but the final test of the building is
a live performance," says Patrick Cox, project manager for the
renovation, who is responsible for seeing that both design and
facilities function smoothly. "The Greater Trenton Symphony
will act as our guinea pigs."
The new War Memorial’s maiden voyage features a holiday
program of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s "Nutcracker" and
"Messiah," plus traditional and popular music of the season.
GTSO executive director John Peter Holly conducts. Public performances
of the program are Sunday, December 13, at 3 and 7 p.m.
During a recent tour of the almost-completed War Memorial renovation,
director Holly and project manager Cox, in a chance meeting on the
steps of the building, greet each other warmly. Now colleagues in
a large and successful project, they both remember that the cordiality
was not always there. Looking back at a confrontational period during
the renovation effort, Holly remembers that because of his presence
in Trenton, he became the "point man" for the principal
groups that use the War Memorial: the GTSO, the New Jersey Symphony
Orchestra, Boheme Opera Company, and New Jersey Repertory Ballet.
Cox remembers his first meetings with the performing groups: "I
was a sacrificial lamb going into the lion’s den." The success
of the renovation project is a tribute to the skill and sensitivity
of both the design and construction teams, as well as the users of
the War Memorial, and to the use of enlightened procedures for the
massive effort. Cox, who saw the project through, admits to no primacy
in the achievement. "It was not my success," he says with
conviction. "The entire team did this."
The decision to renovate the building came in 1988, a surprise
by then Governor Thomas Kean in his State of the State address.
about the arts and about Trenton’s civic life, Kean announced that
the state would take over ownership of the faded structure and provide
for its restoration and renovation. Now, two administrations later,
Governor Christie Whitman is preparing to deliver her own State of
the State address, possibly from the War Memorial, on Tuesday, January
12. At the time of Kean’s announcement, the 56-year-old monument was
owned and managed by the War Memorial Commission, a board appointed
by the city of Trenton and Mercer county. Originally deeded to the
state Treasury Department, the building is now owned by the New Jersey
Department of State and is the only concert hall in the state’s
Estimates on the original plan for renovating the building came in
at a hefty $43 million. The plan languished through the Florio
and performances continued to be given at the War Memorial, despite
its disrepair, until April of 1994, three months into Governor
Donald Ehman, who became general manager of the War Memorial in 1992,
was one of those involved in the renovation of the building. His
include scheduling and supervising the use of the building and
its maintenance. Holder of a master of fine arts degree from Wayne
State University in Detroit, Michigan, Ehman, who is now 46,
in theater’s technical aspects and in theatrical design. "I spent
three or four months going to the state archives to see how the War
Memorial was built, and how it served the community over the
he says. He remembers that Whitman, unhappy with the $43 million price
tag, found an architect to do the job for $25 million, the Vitetta
Group of Cherry Hill. "Once Whitman was on board that’s when
started happening," Ehman says. "Everything was in limbo until
she came on the scene."
The work began in 1994 with what Ehman calls a Selective Removal
when such items as seats, brass railings, and the facilities dazzling
array of custom-made historic lighting fixtures were taken out. A
year’s worth of asbestos abatement work followed. Then came a
phase when openings were made in existing walls for additional fire
exits and the back wall of the old orchestra pit was demolished to
build a new one.
Finally, in 1996 the renovation project got underway.
"The entire architectural design had to be approved by the State
Historic Preservation Office," Ehman recalls. "Because the
War Memorial is a national historic site, it had to be renovated under
Department of the Interior guidelines. It was a long process to get
approvals. The work didn’t take that much longer than anticipated,
but getting approval took time."
Supervising the entire project was Patrick Cox, who has been in the
construction industry for more than 20 years, 19 of them as an
of the state of New Jersey’s Department of the Treasury, which holds
the deeds to buildings owned by the state. Cox’s work on the War
began in the summer of 1995. As project director he had the overall
responsibility for design and construction, consultants, and
"There was no construction contract let when I came on board,"
he says. "My mission was to review the design documents for cost
and constructability. A team was assigned to me. We were to make
to the Treasurer’s Office about how to move forward."
"When I came on line I looked at the budget and learned that no
performing groups had been consulted. I thought, `This is not a
it’s a house — a performance house. It’s not like an office or
a law court. There are live performances here. We have to design a
house adhering to standards for preservation, but also for the
So we trashed the previous documents. We wanted to consult user
Meanwhile, the user groups were getting restless. The four major user
groups — the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra, New Jersey
Orchestra, Boheme Opera, and American Repertory Ballet — had met
with the Building Authority, the state funding agency, in January,
1995. "We all gathered for the first time at this meeting,"
says the GTSO’s Holly. "We were concerned that there didn’t appear
to be a lot of activity going on at the War Memorial, but it was not
yet a great concern since it was only a matter of months since the
building had been closed."
As 1995 wore on, and there were no visible signs of progress on the
renovation, the performing groups grew increasingly uneasy, and Holly
entered the picture with a sample letter to the governor that was
included in the program booklet for the GTSO performance of December
31, 1995. The inclusion of the letter came about largely by chance.
"We had a blank page in our program booklet for the New Year’s
Eve concert and a deadline," says Holly. "We had to fill the
page. We gave the letter the ad hoc title `Committee to Reopen the
War Memorial.’ The committee didn’t exist. Anyone in the audience
could voice their concerns with us."
The letter read, in part, "The very existence of
Trenton’s performing arts community is being threatened by the
darkness of the War Memorial Auditorium. This historic building,
to `the soldiers and sailors and other patriotic citizens of Trenton
and Mercer County as a memorial to their faithful services in times
of national need,’ was meant to be a lasting tribute to our veterans.
Its continued closure is a disgrace to this intention."
"Since the closing of the War Memorial, the number of concert
events in Trenton has diminished by half, with several organizations
leaving the state capital altogether," the letter continued.
prolong the War Memorial’s closure is a hardship to the citizens and
a dishonor to the city’s legacy."
The program asked audience members to submit the signed letters to
the GTSO by January 15, 1996, and promised to present them to the
governor. "Many of the returned letters had comments," Holly
says. "People felt compelled to put their own thoughts in. They
ranged from angry sarcasm to very moving and impassioned pleas. We
were getting up to 100 letters a day. We couldn’t keep up with opening
them. We were flabbergasted."
Recognizing a grass-roots movement growing from the city’s civic
the Times of Trenton ran the letter twice, and letters from readers
of the newspaper piled up alongside those of the New Year’s Eve
"The process took on a life of its own," Holly says.
began to make photocopies and give them to their friends. One person
had several hundred made up and distributed them at a shopping center.
We found out we had struck a nerve. We were not the only ones who
felt deeply about the War Memorial. The entire community cared. They
graduated from high school or college there, or their kids had their
first dance recital or saw their first concert there. All the
in the state were sworn in there. Literally thousands of people had
connections to the building. It was also a war memorial. One woman
wrote that her father was killed in the war, and that every time she
drove past the boarded-up building, she was moved to tears."
Holly chose not to deliver the letters to the governor. "There
were harsh criticisms of the situation and of government
he explains. "There was great anger, and some people got carried
away. If I had to deliver the letters, I would have thrown the
away." Nevertheless, news of the campaign reached the governor.
"I discovered that when you’re carrying 2,000 letters from the
community, people start paying attention to what you say," says
Holly. "I took the letters to meetings with me. There were four
boxes, with reams of paper. Somebody else in the office had to come
with me to carry them. We were the mouse that was roaring. State
for the arts was at an all-time low in Trenton. We became part of
the issue, though our objective was trying to expedite the renovation
of the War Memorial."
Six weeks after the letter first appeared, project director Cox’s
office contacted the GTSO, and other users of the War Memorial and
invited them to attend design meetings and planning meetings, known
as "charettes." The somewhat skeptical Holly turned up at
the first meeting. "When I went to the first charette," he
says, "I thought I couldn’t hang around all day, and that I would
drop in for few hours, and get back to the office. I didn’t know what
a charette was. I was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt because I was
going to a construction site. What I found there was more than a dozen
professional consultants in suits, who were very interested in our
ideas. The next day I wore a suit. The process from that point on
was one of really earnest cooperation and has been ever since. I have
never worked with people more capable and more concerned about the
outcome of their work."
That first charette was the moment when it came to project director
Cox that he would be the sacrificial lamb in the lion’s den.
he remembers, he addressed what he thought was an antagonistic group
by saying, "I want you involved and I will do everything within
the budget constraints that you need." A series of two eight-hour,
two-day charettes was held.
"In application," Cox says, "a charette is essentially
a conference to discuss both the macro and the micro of the project
with all the key people involved. All aspects of the renovation were
sketched up during the two charettes, with design people making
as user groups explained their needs. At times there were between
30 and 45 people involved. You develop real numbers from this, talking
to real people. You’re able to articulate costs and needs. For a lot
of people this is very new. Normally, projects are not done this way.
Increasingly, as clients or owners become more educated or involved,
they understand the usefulness of this process. We really accelerated
the construction process by having the charettes. Because we had all
the people there, we saved time. I had the designers run the meetings
because they had to understand what to do. The Vitetta Group ran them.
The point was to get consensus." Vitetta Group is a Philadelphia
firm specializing in historic preservation, with a staff of 225
with offices in seven cities that include Alexandria, Cherry Hill,
Orlando, Houston, and Sacramento.
Remarkably, by the end of the second charette, consensus was reached.
Participants jointly defined three classes of priorities: an
consisting of essentials; a "B-list" consisting of very
facilities; and a "C-list" representing their ultimate
Cox reports that the final renovation includes all of the
90 percent of the "B-list," and almost half of the
Furthermore, he says, the project is coming in under budget. The chief
consultants for the project include, besides Vitetta, Auerbach and
Associates of New York, lighting and stage equipment; and Kirkegaard
and Associates of Chicago, for acoustics. To ensure quality,
who bid on the War Memorial were required to pre-qualify their skilled
None of those involved in the charettes with whom we spoke, remembers
any pointed conflicts. "In essence, the conflicts were resolved.
I don’t remember what they were," says Cox. War Memorial general
manager Ehman adds that "when you work in the theater everyone
is mindful of the ultimate goals, and everyone collaborates whether
it’s a production or running a theater."
Karen Swanson, general manager of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra,
remembers that Cox’s group "did a very good job of spreading the
net" to include all interested parties. Indeed, the NJSO’s
about acoustics and physical stage needs, for instance, overlapped
with those of Boheme Opera and the GTSO.
"It was a very gratifying experience for all those involved,"
Cox says. "We were talking to users of the building. What they
had to say mattered. They didn’t feel like that before. In the end,
it was not your project, and my project, but our project. Everybody
felt they had a part in it. The experience was quite rare. There was
tremendous skepticism and distrust originally. We invited all the
parties to come back to the site during construction. We had nothing
to hide. When they came and saw that what we agreed to was actually
being built, it was a confirmation of trust."
"The people assigned to work on the War Memorial have been living
and sleeping this project for the last three-and-a-half years,"
Cox says. "They’ve been taking people through on the weekends
gratis. They don’t see building it as building a museum, but as
part of the community."
Physically speaking, the renovated building contains a battery of
facilities that make it friendly both to audience and performers.
A hot water system replaces the old steam heating system. Space for
wheelchairs has been provided at 19 locations in the large hall. The
lighting system has been computerized and redesigned to eliminate
glare in the eyes of the performers. An audio-assisted listening
has been installed.
A portable orchestral shell can be used to completely enclose an
orchestra and direct its sound to the audience. General manager Ehman
says, "It’s like a huge megaphone especially designed for the
War Memorial stage." There is a new sprung stage floor with rubber
pads below the stage to provide the resilience that dancers need.
A new orchestra lift makes it possible for a performing orchestra
either to play at stage level, or to be lowered into a pit for ballet
or musicals. The orchestra pit has been enlarged to provide space
for 52 musicians, instead of the previous 32. Trenton saxophonist
and composer Bill Holcombe, who has played with the GTSO since 1941
when he was a 16-year-old high school student, remembers squeezing
60 players into the pit back then, but he doesn’t remember that it
The basement of the building has been transformed. New dressing rooms
and bath and shower facilities have been installed. A performers’
entrance, and a freight elevator capable of handling a grand piano
have been provided. A loading dock has been built for the first time;
it accommodates two tractor trailers. "It used to be terrible
for touring shows to get in here," Holcombe says. "Everything
had to be lifted up the steps."
The War Memorial is expected to continue as a rental house, rather
than mounting its own programs. In this it differs from Carnegie Hall,
the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Princeton’s McCarter Theater,
and New Brunswick’s State Theater, which present their own events
and, in addition, make their space available to others. The hint of
a democratic tradition is embedded in Ehman’s comment on the subject.
"The building has always been a rental house. There are no plans
to change. It is owned and operated by the government and is open
for anyone to come in and use it."
Rental fees are on a two-tier basis; for-profit organizations and
non-profits face different charges. While the 1999 rental schedule
stipulates $5,800 for a profit-making organization to use the
for a day, a non-profit group pays $3,000. Similar differences exist
for the other spaces available in the building.
In addition to the auditorium, an elegant and spacious ballroom behind
the stage can also be used for performances. With a capacity of 499,
it provides an Art Deco setting for small events. Its stage, set off
by a three-dimensional silver surround, its Art Deco lamps, and its
blue and buff color scheme authentically convey the flair of the early
The three main musical groups, displaced into temporary quarters
the renovations, are all planning gala returns to the hall. For its
March 7 rededication concert the GTSO has commissioned
Holcombe to write a fanfare, which will precede his arrangement of
the Star Spangled Banner. The fanfare, says Holcombe, will be lyrical
and have the underlying theme of being patriotic.
For its Grand Re-opening Gala, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is
mounting a program on March 10 that its general manager Swanson calls
"particularly suited to the War Memorial as a war memorial."
Soloist Frederica von Stade, whose father was killed six weeks before
her birth during World War II, sings in a composition by Richard
based on letters von Stade’s father sent home.
Boheme Opera weighs in with its Commemorative Re-opening Gala on March
13, featuring five prominent operatic artists, and hosted by Martin
Bookspan, the long-time host for the New York Philharmonic, before
returning with its spring production, "Rigoletto," on Friday
and Sunday, April 23 and 25. Boheme’s managing director, Sandra
expresses the sentiments of all the performing groups when she says,
"The War Memorial has been restored to its original dignity. It’s
more proud than ever. All of us came together finally and withstood
this long waiting period, and it’s going to be worth it."
Orchestra & Voices , Trenton War Memorial, 609-737-9383. "Hats
Off to the Hard Hats," by invitation only; or call Voices.
December 12, 3 p.m.
Orchestra & Voices , Trenton War Memorial, 609-394-1338. Holiday
concert of works by Tchaikovsky, Handel, and season arrangements by
Leroy Anderson. $12 to $24. Sunday, December 13, 3 and 7 p.m.
Orchestra , The War Memorial, Trenton, 609-394-1338. With pianist
Clipper Erickson and mezzo-soprano Heather Holcombe. A gala
follows in the glittering, restored-to-period ballroom. $125.
December 31, 8 p.m.
Symphony Orchestra , War Memorial, Trenton, 609-394-1338. Also
1812 Overture with choir, orchestra, carillon, and artillery. $15
to $35. Sunday, March 7, 3 and 7 p.m.
War Memorial, Trenton, 800-ALLEGRO. Program features acclaimed soprano
and New Jersey native Frederica von Stade and baritone Frank
$25 to $100. Wednesday, March 10, 7 p.m.
Memorial, 609-581-9551. A 10th anniversary concert hosted by Martin
Bookspan, voice of the New York Philharmonic. $20 to $50. Saturday,
March 13, 8 p.m.
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