National acclaim followed the opening of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts more than 30 years ago on September 24, 1982. That attention was especially rewarding, because the Hult Center was the last of five major arts facilities to open in the U.S. during a two-week period.
Marilyn Horne, the opening night guest, called it the most glorious hall she had ever been in. Bryon Belt, music critic for Musical America, noted that it was "a tremendous triumph." The Washington Times' Jay Alan Qauntrill referred to it as a "jewel."
Opening night rivaled the celebration that broke out when supporters learned voters passed a 1978 bond measure to build the center. Twice before - in 1972 and 1973 - similar bond measures were soundly defeated. And now, during an economic downturn, voters embraced the concept.
When former Mayor Les Anderson was asked to head the city's Civic Center Committee to develop a plan in 1977, the local economy was in the doldrums. He enlisted businessman Maurie Jacobs to lead the political effort to pass the $18.5 million measure to build the arts facility. It passed by a 2-to-1 margin. The genesis for the facility can be traced to a community-wide campaign by the Lane County Auditorium Association, which worked tirelessly to raise money for the first two ballot measures. The Association would receive credit for raising public interest and understanding of how a performing arts center could be a true cultural cornerstone for Eugene. That awareness was considered vital to passing the 1978 bond measure.
The roots of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts reach far back into the history of the Eugene-Springfield area. The idea of a facility that could accommodate not only local but also national and international art groups predated the Hult’s official ground-breaking on July 14, 1979 by decades. Bond levies to fund the arts center were twice defeated but key arts supporters and community members refused to accept defeat. When the Hult Center finally opened its doors, their accomplishments were hailed by local citizens and by performers and critics throughout the world. Eugene-Springfield was finally on the international performing arts map.
The Eugene Arts Foundation was formed in 1978 to raise private funds for the performing arts center, which was the first in the country built without the benefit of state or national funding. Benson Snyder served as the foundation's executive director. In addition to numerous contributions from a broad spectrum of the community, three local families contributed major gifts. Nils and Jewel Hult created an endowed fund to enhance the center's programming capability. The Chambers family provided supplemental operational support for local performing arts groups using the center through the Silva Endowment. The Soreng family contributed to building costs.
The Eugene Arts Foundation was subsequently renamed the Arts Foundation of Western Oregon (AFWO) and its funds are now part of the Oregon Community Foundation. A committee of local community leaders directs how funds are distributed.
In April of 1983, arts advocates and supporters organized the nonprofit organization, Support HultCenter Operations (SHO) to raise funds for the operations of the center and develop a volunteer base to support activities in the building. Today, SHO volunteers manage special projects and continue to serve as volunteers in support of the Hult Center.
A significant event was the formation of the Lane County Auditorium Committee (LCAA) made up of people representing civic, government, and social agencies. LCAA was to spend a decade waging a “sweat and tears” campaign to persuade voters to approve funds for a performing arts complex. Even though LCAA’s efforts were defeated in two separate bond elections (one in November 1972, and the other in May 1973), the organization’s decade-long campaign laid the groundwork for success in a third election in 1978. By then, the LCAA had already given way to the Civic Center Commission, a new organization created by the Eugene City Council, signaling the city’s decision to get directly involved for the first time in the auditorium project. In 1965 the LCAA produced a preliminary report on the concept for a performing arts facility that would consist of a concert theater with a large stage, a repertory theater, a little theater, a spacious foyer and lobby, and a basement with meeting rooms and office space. Construction costs for the envisioned facility were estimated at about $5 million (in 1965).
The long climb toward yet another bond election got an immediate boost when Eugene’s performing arts backers turned out in force to show their support. Financial support for the commission’s planning activities came in the form of room tax funds approved by Eugene voters in the late 1960’s. The council agreed to dedicate the city’s hotel and motel room tax funds for the commission’s operations. The commission recommended to the City Council in April 1978 that a measure be placed on the June ballot seeking approval of the city’s issuance and sale of general obligation bonds totaling $18.5 million. Commission member Nils Hult, in whose honor the center would later be named, agreed at the time that private contributions to the construction effort would not start flowing in until after the bond issue was approved and the public was assured the civic center would be built. The final count read 10,473 "yes" votes to 6,846 "no" votes - nearly a three to two margin - which caught even the most fervent supporters by surprise. The effort to build a civic center in Eugene had finally come full circle. Not surprisingly, however, center supporters were faced with a number of concerns the next morning when they addressed the task of actually building the complex.
Wrangling over which architectural firm would design the complex ended as abruptly as it had begun when the City Council awarded the contract to the New York firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. The firm entered the competition of 27 companies with dazzling credentials, including the $7.5-million, 2,700-seat Minneapolis Orchestra Hall, the $13-million Boettcher Concert Hall at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and a $2-million restoration of Andrew Carnegie’s mansion to house the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, among others.
Hugh Hardy enlarged the scope of their work to include the area surrounding the proposed complex and City Council members made it pay off in January 1979 by approving the architectural concept of a center that would include a performing arts complex, a convention center, and a hotel. The direction immediately proved to be straight uphill when, only three months after promising that the center could be constructed as planned for $18.5 million, Pfeiffer told uneasy civic center commissioners it would take at least $20 million to complete the ambitious job. Rising inflation was beginning to take its toil. Rather than cut costs, he suggested that other means of financing, such as private sources, be tapped in order to avoid compromising the design plan.
A block-buster opening of another type bolstered the entire project in early May 1979 when it was announced that construction would begin July 1 on the long-awaited, $15.5 million, 284-room Hilton Hotel to be located on the civic center site. The 12-story structure was slated to be completed in November 1981. Linked with the hotel project would be the construction of an underground parking facility and an adjacent $3.5-million conference center. The race to realize a decades-old dream of reshaping the city’s downtown core was on. The Civic Center Commission had been working diligently to restore many of the $1.9 million worth of amenities trimmed during the past two years due to climbing costs. Commission Chairman Les Anderson said many of the features of the performing arts center project that were deleted earlier had been covered by dividends from investments, from the fund-raising efforts of the non-profit Eugene Arts Foundation, and other savings.
The Hult Center for the Performing Arts incorporates visual arts throughout the facility. Works were selected through a juried process, and most of the artists were from Oregon. In some instances, the project architects, Hardy, Holzman and Pfeiffer of New York, altered the building's design to accommodate selected artwork. The Civic Center Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, Oregon Arts Commission and private donors (through the Eugene Arts Foundation) provided funding for 15 primary works, including the stunning blackberry stage curtain in the glorious Silva Concert Hall.
The Hult Center hosts more than 700 events and activities a year. It is the home of six local professional performing arts companies. These Resident Companies include Eugene Ballet Company, Eugene Concert Choir, Eugene Opera, Eugene Symphony, Oregon Bach Festival, and Ballet Fantastique. Prior to taking residence at the Hult Center, the Eugene Symphony, Eugene Opera, Eugene Ballet and Oregon Bach Festival hosted performances in the community.
The Hult Center for the Performing Arts is in Eugene, Oregon operated by the City of Eugene. More than 700 events and performances take place here each year. The Hult Center is located in the heart of Eugene's vibrant downtown on Willamette Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.
Visit the Hult Center: 1 Eugene Center (7th & Willamette) | Eugene, Oregon 97401 | View Parking & Directions Info >
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