By HELEN DALRYMPLE
Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge was already well known as a patroness of music before she approached the Library in 1924, seeking a permanent home for the chamber music festivals and musical commissions that she had sponsored in western Massachusetts for a number of years.
Working with Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam and the new chief of the Music Division, Carl Engel, she submitted a letter of intent on Nov. 12, 1924, to provide for the donation of an auditorium (and personally presented a check for $60,000 to cover the cost of its construction to Mr. Engel) to the Library. President Coolidge (no relation) signed into law the bill accepting Mrs. Coolidge's offer of the auditorium on Jan. 23, 1925, and construction began immediately. (The actual cost of the auditorium exceeded $60,000, but Mrs. Coolidge made up the difference.)
Mrs. Coolidge also wished to establish a trust fund as an endowment for the future of musical performance at the Library, because, according to her biographer Cyrilla Barr, "It was her unswerving belief that libraries should not be merely the custodians of manuscripts condemned to preservation as mute artifacts of an earlier time," but that "this music must be brought to life in performance." Income from the trust fund would be used for operational expenses and for the increase of the music collections. Since the Library had no authority to assume the fiduciary responsibility for endowments, however, the realization of the second part of Mrs. Coolidge's dream was a bit more complicated. But it was accomplished when the Library of Congress Trust Fund Board was established by another act of Congress approved a little more than a month later, on March 3, 1925.
In its first season, the Coolidge Auditorium was the site of 25 concerts; more than 2,000 have been heard there in the ensuing 65 years. It has been the venue of performances by such renowned artists as Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Nadia Boulanger, Nathan Milstein, Gregor Piatigorsky, Leontyne Price and Artur Rubinstein, as well as nearly every major chamber music group of the 20th century. During its first two decades, the Coolidge Foundation commissioned most of the leading composers of the time, including Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, and the composers' autograph manuscripts for the commissioned works became part of the Library's collections.
The most famous American work to have been created under the auspices of the Coolidge Foundation -- with its premiere in the Coolidge Auditorium in 1944 -- is Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland, which was choreographed and danced by Martha Graham and first performed with a 13-piece orchestra.
Congress appropriated $2.5 million in 1995 for the renovation of the Coolidge Auditorium and the Whittall Pavilion. The only previous restoration of the space occurred in 1960, when it was air conditioned and all the seats were removed and reupholstered.
Additions and improvements to the Coolidge Auditorium in the 1996-97 renovation include: state-of-the-art theater lighting; new audiovisual recording systems (partially endowed by the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund in the Library of Congress); two new large dressing rooms with showers on the basement level of the Jefferson Building; a new movable stage extension; a new acoustic curtain to be used to simulate a full concert hall for practice and recording sessions; a soundproof recording booth; a handicapped-access elevator; a catwalk above the stage; and movable panels in the stage shell, large enough to permit stage scenery movement and to effect changes in the sound of the hall.
Great care was taken to ensure that the superb acoustics of the hall remained intact, and the consulting acoustical engineer, George C. Izenour, reported on Oct. 2 that "the room acoustics objectives of the restoration have been achieved, and the Coolidge will now resume its envied position among the few great recital halls in the world."