A Place to Gather Again
The Long Center recycles not only Palmer Auditorium's materials but also its civic purpose
By Robert Faires, Fri., March 21, 2008
When the Long Center for the Performing Arts threw wide its doors for a four-day open house earlier this month, a multitude of Austinites turned out to check it out. They walked up the Grand Stair to the 30,000-square-foot City Terrace and listened as the MASS Ensemble made music from the building itself, playing long strings attached to the old support structure ringing the plaza. They went inside and explored every nook and cranny of the facility, from the glassed-in Kodosky Donor Lounge with its expansive view of the erupting Downtown skyline to the dressing rooms for visiting stars to the restrooms, with their 2-1 ratio of women's facilities to men's. They stepped up to the walls and ran their fingers along the literally weather-beaten green and brown aluminum tiles rescued from the dome of Palmer Auditorium, the municipal center that had previously occupied the site for almost 50 years. They filed into the 2,400-seat Michael & Susan Dell Hall and the 230-seat Debra and Kevin Rollins Studio Theatre to hear chamber music and opera and watch theatre and dance. And when Grupo Fantasma got Dell Hall rockin', they danced themselves, right in the aisles.
They also nodded appreciatively when the personable tour guides dutifully ticked off statistics and information about the performing-arts center: that 65% of the materials in it were recycled from Palmer, including 500 tons of steel, the stage house and foundation, mahogany from the Philippines, marble from an Italian quarry no longer being mined, and those love-'em-or-hate-'em roof tiles.
What they didn't realize, perhaps, was that their own presence was an indication that constructed materials weren't the only things being recycled from Palmer Auditorium. Its original purpose was, too. See, when that facility opened on Jan. 5, 1959, it was intended to serve all of Austin, to be a municipal center in the broadest sense: for the whole of the city and every one of its citizens. And so it was, hosting within its round frame high school commencement exercises, trade shows, rock concerts, Christmas pageants, and performances by the symphony and the ballet. It was the place where JFK was to be feted at the end of his tour of Texas in November 1963, and it was the place where LBJ declared victory in the presidential election one year later. Its stage featured everyone from opera star Marian Anderson to Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Elvis (Presley) to Elvis (Costello). The auditorium had a little something for everyone in the old days.
Cliff Redd remembers what it was like in the beginning. The man who has shepherded the Long Center to completion as executive director for the last four years walked across its stage to get his high school diploma less than a decade after the building opened.
"It was a place of gathering," says Redd, "a much-needed place that the leaders in the Fifties knew we needed, where we could be together as a community. That's where you went, and you saw everybody you knew. It was a big mix of Austin going to things, banging into each other, eating those awful hot dogs. That's what the Long Center does: It's everything from the rodeo gala to the opera and all points between. And what that does is put us back in conversation the way we were then."
Joe and Teresa Lozano Long, whose names adorn the new performing-arts center, remember that time as well. They were still newlyweds when Municipal Auditorium opened its doors, and at the time, the prospect of them donating $22 million to anything must have seemed as far-fetched as The Twilight Zone. Barely finished with their postgraduate work – she had gotten a doctorate in education; he had gotten a law degree – the Longs were ensconced in a small apartment on Speedway that rented for $65 a month, pretty much all they could manage on Joe's $450-a-month salary as an investigator for the State Securities Board. It would be quite a few years before Joe's successes in the banking industry paid off to the extent that they could become one of the city's leading philanthropic couples.
Still, when that time came and the Longs were able to make the magnanimous lead gift that launched the transformation of Palmer Auditorium, their memories of the original facility and their decades spent in the city made it imperative that this new center not be a pet project of the wealthy few. "When we made our contribution," Joe Long says, "one of the things we insisted on was that it be a community effort and that the facility would be for the community, not just the opera, the symphony, and the ballet. The money was not easy to raise, but one of the things I'm proudest of is that we have 4,700 contributors, all the way from the little girl that sold lemonade and gave us $8.64."
In fact, when it comes to discussing who paid for this center that bears their name, the Longs are much happier to talk about – not to mention prouder of – those people across the city who approached them and said, "We want to be a part of this." There was businesswoman Vickie Roan, who had the idea of getting more women involved by asking each contributor to pledge $3,600 by "giving up one latte a day for three years." The Notable Women, as they were named, raised $1,350,000 for the Long Center. There were Sean Fric and Tony Capasso, who had the idea for a support group aimed at young professionals. Their effort, dubbed Catalyst 8, was so successful that it didn't stop at raising money for the building itself; it created a fund to subsidize up to 100% of rental costs for artists and arts groups that might not otherwise be able to afford to perform at the Long Center. There was legendary local activist Ada Anderson, who sought to generate support from Austin's African-American community and through her Circle of Friends has raised more than $70,000 to date – more than $20,000 over her original goal. There were the members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir who raised $2,500 to name a seat in Dell Hall in memory of their longtime choir director, Virgie Carrington DeWitty. "It's that kind of involvement in the community," say the Longs, "that has meant a lot to us."
That involvement sometimes seemed a long time coming: Realizing this dream of a city performing-arts center took 16 years. When the idea of fashioning it out of Palmer began to take hold in the mid-Nineties, it encountered substantial resistance. Some Austinites feared they would be losing what little was left of the civic center that served a broad constituency of Austin to the small, exclusive black-tie and ball-gown crowd. That was never the idea, but it took a proposal for erecting a new events center next to Palmer to sway skeptics that the collectible shows, City-Wide Garage Sales, and Junior League's Christmas Affairs, among other community events, would have somewhere to go if the auditorium went away. When that plan was presented to voters in a 1998 bond election, it won approval 63% to 37%.
Though the next few years looked rosy for the project – that was the time of the Longs' $20 million lead gift, with $40 million in pledges trailing behind, plus a glorious vision of a four-venue center designed by Chicago architectural stars Skidmore, Owings & Merrill – the economic downturn after the turn of the new century darkened its prospects considerably. People stopped giving money, and the project's fundraising stalled at the $60 million level, even as its costs kept rising (the initial estimate of $50 million gave way to $89 million, then $110 million, then $125 million). Then the center's chief executive officer, David Fleming, resigned to take a job with a performing-arts center in Green Bay, Wis. Community support for this cultural showplace seemed in question.
One man, however, had no doubts about the Long Center going forward: Joe Long himself, even though if it hadn't, it might have saved him and his wife much trouble and money. "I knew that if we closed it down, it would be years and years before another public project could be financed privately," he says. "It would've saved us $12 million to [pull the plug], but I thought about all the people who had given $5,000 and $10,000, and they wouldn't have gotten anything. I worried a lot about the smaller contributors, and that was what kept us going."
In other words, the spark that kept this arts center alive was a concern for what it meant to the community. And when a new executive director was hired, that selfsame concern for community was fundamental to his approach to the job. "The project I stepped into in 2004 sort of had a banner across it: 'Elitist: Not About Me,'" says Cliff Redd. "I said at the get-go: 'That is not my thinking. I can't do that project. I can only do a project that makes sense to me relative to the Austin I know.' For me, the biggest corner to walk around was: What does this building do for this community? And getting that loaded up is so much more than running an arts building with a bunch of bureaucrats in it. It couldn't be that. We couldn't tolerate it that way as a city."
Joe Long appreciates that about Redd and credits him with resuscitating the Long Center in a way that brought the community on board. "We hired Cliff because, in our judgment, he would inject a lot of energy and enthusiasm into the project," he says, "which is exactly what he did. He made this town aware of this project. He has gone to more meetings and done more entertaining and met with more people – I've been living here on and off since 1949, and he knows three times as many people as I do. He is our best walking advertisement, and he's on the job seven days a week, night and day."
Redd might admit to being the Long Center's most vocal cheerleader, but for him the credit for the project's revival goes to the many people who bought into it and its values. "We fell all over ourselves," he says, referring to the Long Center's near-death experience. "And when you pick yourself back up, you start with a level of determination that is unparalleled. How do you not ever go back on that road, and how do you find one better? If you're going to go back into the community and make a project live, how do you build public trust for it? Those become the cementing value systems you have, so you go find people who have those with you. Our contractors had them; they understood why we had to deliver and the way we had to deliver, and they had the discipline to do it. It's come out right but not by accident. It all has to do with the team that you have around you."
For the Long Center, that team would have to include architect Stan Haas, who did so much to retain the physical elements of Palmer Auditorium in the new facility. Some of his motivation in doing that was saving money so that at least two venues in the original plan could be completed – and the TeamHaas designs shaved almost $60 million off the project's construction costs, a characteristically brilliant approach by the innovative local design firm – but the massive amount of recycling succeeded in doing more than pinching pennies. As Redd notes, it preserved the spirit of the original structure from 1959.
Municipal Auditorium, he says, "was a building built with a lot of hope. It was what Austin was going to look like. And [the ones who built it] were right: We're one of the coolest cities in the country, and that building was sort of the leading thought of that. It represented hope to me. That's why I was so seduced into keeping its roots in our eye when we're there. When you walk around in the Long Center, it's all around you: the old light fixtures in the lobby, the dome, the Filipino mahogany, the old marble in the bathrooms – they're all to me the iconography of the building, and we didn't just throw it away.
"I think buildings have little spirits in them, and this one got to smile when we moved in, because it knew that it got to have its real purpose, which is a place of community gathering, in all the right ways this time. It's like going back to 1959 again. It is a beacon of hope for our community about what we can be and what we're capable of doing as a community together. And in terms of putting us in dialogue, [it's giving us] a place to gather again, which we have been sorely missing. And it's our own."