Planning for Lincoln Center, one of the world’s major cultural centers, began in the mid-1950s. Ground was broken in 1959 and within a decade six theaters, a school, a library and museum, a fountain, and landscaped parks, all with Modern works of art, had been completed. The complex includes three main buildings that surround the plaza and fountain: the Metropolitan Opera House, the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater), and what was originally Philharmonic Hall, the first building in the complex to be completed. Philharmonic Hall was renamed Avery Fisher Hall in 1973 and then renamed again for Brooklyn-born, entertainment mogul and philanthropist David Geffen in 2015. These buildings and the Vivian Beaumont Theater, the New York Public Library, and the Juilliard School were designed by leading American architects and all are faced in Italian travertine. Damrosch Park is located at the southwest corner.
On September 23, 1962, Leonard Bernstein conducted Philharmonic Hall’s inaugural concert which included a new piece, Connotations, by Aaron Copland. Besides Copland, other composers attending the opening-night concert were Samuel Barber, Henry Cowell, and Virgil Thomson.
Philharmonic Hall’s architect, Max Abramovitz, commissioned a large, site-specific work for the building’s Promenade from sculptor Richard Lippold, a sculptor who specialized in large public art works completed in conjunction with architects, including the bronze rods that hang from the ceiling of the bar room in the former Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building and “Flight” in the Vanderbilt Avenue entrance to the Pan Am (now Met Life) Building. The Lincoln Center piece, entitled “Orpheus and Apollo,” is generally considered to be Lippold’s masterpiece. This enormous 190-foot-long work consisting of two irregular groups of 190 thin cascading plates of Muntz (an alloy of copper and zinc) supported by gold wires, was installed in 1962. The substantial mass of each group hung over the lobby’s two escalators. The sculpture was a major feature of the hall’s public interior spaces and was also prominently visible from the Lincoln Center plaza. Despite its enormous scale and five-ton weight, the sculpture appeared as a light and dynamic work, fulfilling architect Max Abramovitz’s request that Lippold “create sculpture that would float in space and relate in a contemporary manner to the interior of the foyer just as the magnificent chandeliers of a former day took command of their space.”
In 2014, the sculpture was removed and placed in storage. The current plan for revitalizing the hall does not call for its return, depriving visitors of a masterpiece of mid-century Modern sculpture. In February 2020, the Preservation League of New York State declared the work one of the year’s Seven to Save most endangered heritage sites.