Established in 1883 by nine Grand Rapids women, the organization was named for the legendary patron saint of music. During the earliest days, members met in each other’s homes and performed for one another. By 1890, the society was sponsoring performances by world-renowned musicians.
In Grand Rapids, nine musically talented women, led by Ella Matthews Peirce, gathered on a September afternoon in 1883 to form a society to “promote the study and appreciation of music in all its branches, and to encourage the development of music in the community.” The nine women including Peirce were Mrs. F.M. Davis, Mrs. Robert Merrill, Mrs. Lyman Patten, Mrs. D.B. Shedd, Mrs. Annie McLaren, Miss Mary Atwater, Miss Louise Nelson, and Miss Gertrude Baars. Over the coming months, they chose to name their new organization after St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.
There were 63 charter members of the St. Cecilia Society representing Grand Rapids’ most prominent families – wives and daughters of attorneys, political figures, furniture factory owners, retailers and more. At first the women met in each other’s parlors, but as the membership grew they rented space at the Ladies Literary Club then located on Pearl Street. Meetings were also held at the YMCA and at the Knights of Pythias. The first ticketed performance took place in 1884 with reserved seating at 75 cents and general admission at 50 cents.
By 1890, St. Cecilia Music Society was large enough and financially able to begin bringing renowned musical artists into Grand Rapids to perform at the Ladies’ Literary Club – intending to “surge new members and elevate musical tastes of people.” Through Ella Matthews Pierce, the society’s first president, the organization assumed a position of power and influence and the women began to feel that only through a building of their own would the society be able to fulfill its mission in total. In 1889 and 1890, increased revenues looked favorable in creating a new building to house the prospering organization.
In 1890, the purchase of a lot on Sheldon Avenue was made. However, due to a zoning conflict they were forced to sell the lot and put plans for the new building on hold. In the meantime, prominent Chicago architect, Henry Ives Cobb had been hired to design a “simple and dignified” temple of music. In 1892 the society bought another property at 24 Ransom Avenue, its current location, for the sum of $8,940, about $300,000 in today’s dollars. A month later, the members unanimously approved Cobb’s design and its estimated $24,000 price tag to build, equating to about $700,000 today.
Henry Ives Cobb had impeccable credentials. He had created the Gothic design of the original University of Chicago. He had also studied with Dankmar Adler, who had designed the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago and who had been an acoustical consultant during the design and construction of New York’s Carnegie Hall. Cobb was familiar with Adler’s acoustical theories and applied them to the St. Cecilia project.
Work on the new building started immediately. With the foundation in place, the cornerstone was laid on November 6, 1893 amidst much fanfare. The cornerstone words “St. Cecilia” in script lettering are said to be a facsimile of the handwriting of Mrs. Frank M. Davis, one of the society’s founders, its musical director and a member of the program committee at the time that the cornerstone was laid. They used this signature as their logo for many years thereafter. The cornerstone is still a prominent part of the exterior of the building.
During the cornerstone ceremony, the society sealed inside a box filled with artifacts of the period including copies of all four Grand Rapids newspapers, a bouquet of yellow roses, printed programs of society musicales, a Columbian Exposition half dollar, a souvenir spoon, a variety of documents and a history of the society to date. The historical document by Ella Matthews Peirce boasted, “No other woman’s club in the world has done what we have in so short a time. The city should be proud of such a musical club and to have so fine a building, which will be an ornament. It is really a public enterprise that all citizens should take an interest in.”
With the construction of the new building, the society mounted an ambitious fundraising campaign described by local press as the “greatest money-raising campaign that the city had ever seen”. Some of their fundraising efforts included:
By spring of 1894 the building was completed at a total cost including furnishings of $58,000, more than double the original estimate. Despite tenacious fundraising efforts, the society took out a $35,000 mortgage to pay off the cost of construction. Nevertheless, Cobb’s Italian Renaissance-style building was judged by society members to be worth the price.
The new building was dedicated on June 19, 1894 with elaborate daylong ceremonies that included remarks by nationally known speakers, receptions, and no less than three separate concerts. Mayor E.B. Fisher noted in his address, entitled, “The City Appreciates the St. Cecilia” that he was “very glad indeed to have a part in this dedication of the first temple erected by women anywhere in the United States for the uses and purposes of musical culture.” The festivities lasted until after 10 p.m. and over 4,000 people were reported to have attended the dedication and admired the city’s new landmark.
In 1895, a magnificent stained glass window was installed, commissioned by Mrs. T. H. Lyon, a charter member of the society, in memory of her daughter, Emma Lyon Greeson, a pianist and also a society member. Dedicated on October 11, 1895, the window was designed by New York Artist and Grand Rapids native Frederick S. Church. The famous New York studio of master craftsman Louis Comfort Tiffany executed Church’s design. The large window, picturing St. Cecilia seated at the organ and protected by two guardian angels, currently hangs on the building’s south wall and is one of the organization’s greatest treasures.
With the building finally opened, the society saw their membership rapidly increase. By 1885 there were 785 dues-paying members.
By 1925 the building was 31 years old and the auditorium was in need of renovation. To remove a troublesome auditory “ghost,” the acoustically superior design of the performance space had one flaw: a persistent ringing echo, due to the balcony openings into the hall, which had been designed for seating.
The renovation was undertaken and the balcony seating was eliminated, and two massive pillars located right in the middle of the auditorium were removed, making 71 more seats available. The renovation, which cost $3,000, was a success and to this day the auditorium (now the Royce Auditorium) is considered an acoustical gem and one of the finest recital halls in this country and abroad.
In the mid-1950s, like so many cities, Grand Rapids’ downtown was deteriorating as its newly built suburbs bloomed. What had once been the center of business, shopping, entertainment and culture was now turning into a wasteland. In an attempt to stem the alarming trend, the city turned to the federal government for the funding of $50 million in new construction under the banner of “urban renewal.”
By 1966, wholesale demolition had erased 128 buildings from the downtown skyline. Some of these structures had decayed beyond redemption. Others like the City Hall and County Building had significant historical and aesthetic value and their loss eventually became a source of deep regret. The building that had been the St. Cecilia Society’s home of nearly three quarters of a century was among the buildings slated for demolition. The historic structure, filled with the echoes of fine music, stood in the way of a proposed thoroughfare to extend Jefferson Street to the north. But a dedicated group of business leaders and society members successfully intervened and the loss of the city’s unique musical shrine was averted.
In 1970, the St. Cecilia Society changed their name to St. Cecilia Music Society.
The building in 1971 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places underscoring its importance to the community’s history.
In 1974, St. Cecilia Music Society began a long process of working to restore the building to its former elegance as well as to provide handicap access and assure compliance with the latest building and safety codes. Over the next several years, members were able to raise the necessary $500,000 that they hoped would complete a major renovation project.
In 1984, a year after the society celebrated the centennial anniversary of its founding, the first phase of the restoration was complete. The auditorium was remodeled and later named for the Royce family, which had become – and remained so for several decades – one of the society’s principal benefactors. Improvements were made to the heating and electrical systems, the main floor foyer, the studio (known as the President’s Room) and the second floor ballroom. The adjacent parking lot was acquired as the organization’s property.
Between 1984 and 1987, an official fundraising campaign, called the “Second Century Campaign” took place to raise $1 million for new improvements including a north wing with an elevator addition for the building, modern restroom facilities, improved access to the stage for performers with disabilities, and additional office and storage space, as well as improvements to the electrical and mechanical systems. The successful campaign culminated in a concert with Violinist Itzhak Perlman, which became the inauguration of the organization’s Great Artist Series, an annual gala whose proceeds were earmarked to benefit the St. Cecilia building.
Over the years the Great Artist Series has featured some of the world’s finest musicians including: Flutist James Galway; violinists Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern, and Sarah Chang; pianists Earl Wild, Andre Watts, Emanuel Ax, Chick Corea, and Ramsey Lewis; vocalists Tony Bennett, Marilyn Horne, Denyce Graves, Frederica Van Stade, Michael Feinstein, and Diane Reeves; percussionist Evelyn Glennie; humorist Victor Borge; and jazz greats Wynton Marsalis and Bucky Pizzarelli and then John Pizzarelli Quartet.
In 1996, two years after the building’s centennial anniversary and nearly a decade since the completion of the previous renovation, St. Cecilia Music Society’s board and staff launched its multimillion dollar “Opus 2: Securing Our Second Century” capital campaign for the restoration, maintenance and preservation of its landmark building for generations to come. Support was gained through gifts from the state of Michigan, the Grand Rapids Foundation, Steelcase Foundation, and Frey Foundation along with contributions from the community. By May of 1998 all of the funding was in place and the building in need of critical repairs was closed to the public for several months while the architectural team of Design Plus of Grand Rapid and Architects Four of Ann Arbor worked to address the inevitable problems brought on by age and to protect the building’s structural integrity and historical character. The auditorium was refurbished and new paint colors; furniture and carpeting design was installed. Itzhak Perlman performed within the “new” auditorium design for a second time to honor those who had worked on the project.
The most recent large renovation – which included new auditorium seating, upgrades to the HVAC system, a new roof, all new interior paint, carpet, and furnishings, and a complete design of the administrative offices on the lower level – was completed in 2016.
With the distinction of being “the mother of the arts” in Grand Rapids, SCMC’s existence is integral to the story of many of the city’s most prominent arts organizations. The predecessor to the Grand Rapids Symphony was organized under St. Cecilia sponsorship in 1919. Opera Nights started in the 1960s, sowing the seed for the creation of the West Michigan Opera Association, which evolved into today’s Opera Grand Rapids. Additionally, Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, Grand Rapids Bach Festival, and Grand Rapids Ballet all trace their beginnings to SCMC.
Besides musical performances, numerous other community events have also taken place at the Center, ranging from classes about languages, opera, Shakespeare, and Wagner to an address by Susan B. Anthony in support of women’s suffrage. During World War 1, SCMC served national needs by headquartering the Red Cross in the building. Today, the Italianate structure is used by over 100 different organizations in West Michigan. The Grand Rapids Symphony presents a popular Thursday evening series in Royce Auditorium and it is a preferred performance venue for the Grand Rapids Women’s Chorus and Grand Rapids Community College’s music ensembles. Dozens of piano teachers use the building for student recitals. Many local nonprofit organizations also rent space for meetings, seminars, banquets, and other events. Additionally, many individuals choose the premises for weddings, memorials, and other personal occasions.
Today the once “women’s only” society club has turned into a totally inclusive organization reaching out to all areas of the greater Grand Rapids community. In 2007 the organization’s name was changed to St. Cecilia Music Center, encompassing in name what the organization had become – a center of music education and music enrichment for all members of the community and beyond.
Since that time, the organization has greatly expanded its performance programming, creating the Spectacular Jazz Series and the Acoustic Café Folk Series, both of which have expanded the borders of SCMC beyond its decades-long reputation as an organization focused solely on classical music. As a result, the addition of these concert series have also broadened and diversified St. Cecilia Music Center’s audience base. Together, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Series, the Spectacular Jazz Series, and the Acoustic Café Folk Series are widely recognized for bringing high-caliber, world-renowned artists to West Michigan audiences.
At it’s core, St. Cecilia Music Center offers individuals from the community, of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life opportunities to perform, practice and experience music. St. Cecilia’s School of Music programs include youth orchestra ensembles, summer camps and more to introduce beginners and more advanced musicians to a wide range of musical experiences. The Strings to School outreach program was introduced in 2010 to bring beginning string classes to underserved Grand Rapids Public schools – offering a completely cost-free program to the students and schools. The St. Cecilia Grand String Orchestra give adults the chance to learn an instrument for the first time or renew their acquaintance with instruments played in the past. In a collective effort to promote all the arts in Grand Rapids, the lower level at St. Cecilia Music Center features the Terryberry Gallery, hosting juried exhibitions of artists from around the region.
St. Cecilia’s mission to “promote the appreciation, study and performance of music in order to enrich the human spirit and enhance the quality of life for the residents of West Michigan” has withstood the test of time. Nearly 140 years after its founding, SCMC remains committed to being an accessible community hub that provides life-changing musical experiences for everyone in the community – fostering community engagement, creativity, and a lifelong appreciation for arts and culture.