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No building on the University of Wisconsin campus holds more associations with music than does Old Music Hall. Begun in 1878 to meet the university’s need for a building where all of its 481 students could assemble and to house adequate library facilities, the building was first named Assembly Hall.
Madison architect David R. Jones designed the Victorian Gothic building, which housed an 800-seat auditorium, and a two-story, 75-seat library, lit only by large skylights over the reading area. Its tower clock provided the time standard for the community of Madison. The building was dedicated on Tuesday, 2 March 1880, with Wisconsin Governor William E. Smith opening the long—and apparently tedious—program. The campus paper, The University Press, in a portent of things to come, considered the musical portion of the program, directed by Professor F. A. Parker, “the pleasantest feature of the evening.”
1880 also saw the establishment of the Department of Music and Francis A. Parker became the university’s first Professor of Music. Parker originally came to campus as the Instructor for Vocal and Instrumental Music in 1878, the same year that construction began on Assembly Hall.
Assembly Hall was a central meeting place for all types of university activities. UW commencement exercises were held in the Hall, as were convocations, installations, memorials, etc. At the same time, receptions, teas, dances, and other social occasions were scheduled in the auditorium, which was known both for its good acoustics and fine dance floor. It was obvious, however, that the building was too small for the quickly-growing university and even the new Library was inadequate almost from the time it opened.
With the building of the Armory and the move of the University Library to larger facilities in the State Historical Society, part of the building was turned over the School of Music in 1900. The first major renovation of Assembly Hall (or Library Hall, as it was popularly known) was announced in November of that year, in order to make the space useful to the school. Two builders bid on the project, which was awarded to the low bid of $1500. The most dramatic alteration in the remodeling plan was the division of the library’s two-story room into two distinct floors. The first floor included a waiting area “supplied with current musical literature, an office for the School’s director, five piano studios, a rehearsal room, and a room for a music library.”
On 7 December 1910, the Regents officially changed the building’s name to Music Hall.
From 1900 until the School of Music moved to the new Humanities building in 1969, Music Hall served, along with several later annexes, as home to the School and to Mills Music Library. Music Hall was then turned over to the School of Music’s opera department. A major renovation of the auditorium was completed in October 1985 and Old Music Hall remains a vital and important music venue.