John Peter Holly

Donald Ehman

Patrick Cox

Grass-roots Campaign

Karen Swanson

Corrections or additions?

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

also invited.

"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."

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John Peter Holly

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



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Donald Ehman

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."

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Patrick Cox

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."

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Grass-roots Campaign

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."

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Karen Swanson

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

was pleasant.

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."

Christmas Holiday Spectacular, Greater Trenton Symphony

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.

Christmas Holiday Spectacular, Greater Trenton Symphony

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.

New Year’s Eve Concert & Gala, Greater Trenton Symphony

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.

War Memorial Rededication Concert, Greater Trenton

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.

Grand Re-Opening Gala, New Jersey Symphony

Orchestra ,

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.

Grand Re-Opening Gala, Boheme Opera, Trenton War

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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