Symphony Hall Shines in a New Light

The Boston Symphony Orchestra Opened Symphony Hall's Clerestory Windows on July 28, 2008.

BSO patrons finally have the opportunity to see Symphony Hall in a whole new light - natural light. The shutters have been taken off and the glass replaced in the fourteen half-moon windows that ring the top balcony. Closed since the 1940's and hidden behind heavy curtains and wood panels, the windows now allow sunlight, moonlight, and city glow to stream into the hall. Director of Facilities C. Mark Cataudella believes patrons will now be able to see details and nuances of the exquisite hall that have long been hidden. 

The windows are part of McKim, Mead & White's original design for the historic 108-year-old Symphony Hall, reflecting similar windows in the BSO's previous home, the Old Boston Music Hall. "In the earliest photographs, you can see the windows open and natural light on the ceiling," says Ann Beha Architects' Pamela Hawkes, the project's principal in charge. "It's quite wonderful."

The prevailing story has been that the windows were covered full-time during World War II, to prevent any light from escaping at night in the event of air raids. "I'm not sure that's really accurate," says BSO archivist Bridget Carr. "They were closed during the blackouts, but there were mechanisms to open and close the shutters before the wars. But at one point, the shutters were nailed shut. No one really knows when or why." And Symphony Hall hasn't seen the light of day since, until now.

The new windows have motorized shutters on the outside that can be controlled electronically from inside the hall. "They are vertical, sort of like venetian blinds that rise up in a track and are stored in the base of the window," explains Hawkes, who has been working in tandem with project manager Craig Mutter and project architect Amanda Sanders.

BSO Archives; Symphony Hall circa 1920
Special care has been taken not to disturb Symphony Hall's acclaimed acoustics and to minimize noise from outside. "We had to ensure that when we took away the panels and curtains, there would be no change in the amount of ambient external noise transmitted into the hall," Hawkes says.

Acoustic engineering company Acentech ran a series of tests contrasting noise with the panels in place versus noise once they were removed. "As a result, we modified the windows. The original sash will remain visible from the audience, but has been retrofitted with laminated glass. The two layers of glass help disperse the sound vibrations. In addition, there's a gap of four inches and another panel of glass on the outside of the window opening, also with laminated glass. It's like two windows, and tests indicated that this would take the place of the wood and fabric shutters to keep traffic and other noise from being heard in the hall."

In addition to the newly available outside light from the opened windows, engineers are also installing soft lighting in the frame of each window. "It lights up a curved triangle above the windows and casts more illumination on the ceiling decoration," Hawkes claims. "From the outside, all the windows glow. It's quite beautiful at dusk." 

BSO Archives; Symphony Hall circa 1920

The window renovation is part of a larger project that addresses the illumination of the sixteen Greek statues that surround the hall. "The existing statue lighting was not as refined as we thought it could be," Hawkes says. "But it's important as a way of adding layers and dimension and interest to the hall." The new lighting will have three components -- soft light grazing the back of each sculpture's niche, museum-style lighting from the ceiling on the front of each statue, and a special element allowing for colored light behind the statues for Pops concerts and special events. The potential acoustic impact of the lighting was also reviewed and approved by Acentech.

A final element of the project increases the illumination on the balcony stairs, enabling patrons to see better on the way to their seats.

"I have been excited about the restoration of the clerestory windows since we began discussing the project over five years ago," says BSO executive director Mark Volpe. "Now that the work has been completed, we are more convinced that adding natural light to the hall already known for having the best natural sound will enhance the experience of audience and performer alike."

Feature written by Karen Campbell