Mandel Hall was a gift to the young University of Chicago by department store tycoon Leon Mandel. It is modeled after the great hall of Crosby House, built in 1472 by Sir John Crosby, Sheriff of London. The house was actually rented to Richard Duke of Gloucester (Richard III) after his nephews had been imprisoned in the Tower.
By the time it had been admired by Leon Mandel, Crosby House had been a Presbyterian Meeting House, a restaurant and a bank and it would soon be moved from its original site in Bishopsgate Street to its present location on Cheney Walk on the Embankment in Chelsea. In any case, something about the storied edifice struck the Chicagoan's fancy and its noble hall became the inspiration for a musical American cousin.
Despite its gothic roots, the interior of Chicago's Mandel Hall, capable of seating almost 1000, is decidedly Victorian, boasting an ornate balcony, detailed oak woodwork, ornamental painting, and majestic windows, including one by Tiffany and Co., a gift of the class of 1902. The graceful size of the hall and its fine acoustics made it an immediate favorite of area music-lovers.
The first concert in Mandel Hall, on December 21, 1903, featured works by Mozart and Wagner, Beethoven's Leonore Overture, No.3 and Strauss's Death and Transfiguration performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, then known as the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. The Chicago Symphony continued to use Mandel for both symphonic and smaller ensemble concerts until the mid-1970's when rising costs made South Side productions prohibitive.
In the mid-1940s, classical music in Mandel Hall became organized as the University Concerts series. It was this organization that first presented 24-year-old violinist Isaac Stern, introduced guitarist Andres Segovia to local audiences and welcomed the newly formed Juilliard String Quartet to Chicago. These early years boasted a "dean's list" of legendary performers: organist Marcel Dupre, the Budapest String Quartet, violinist Alexander Schneider, harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and keyboard greats Grant Johannesen, Eugene Istomin and Artur Schnabel. The practice of hosting stellar debuts continues to this day with violinist Hilary Hahn, soprano Cecilia Bartoli, tenor Ian Bostridge, flutist Emmanuel Pahud and cellist Pieter Wispelwey among many taking their first Chicago bows at Mandel Hall.
Along with its dedication to the classics, Mandel Hall has also consistently showcased the music of ascending composers. It was within Mandel's ivied walls that Samuel Barber conducted the first performance of his Capricorn Concerto, Aaron Copland first played his Piano Sonata for the public, Isaac Stern premiered Hindemith's Violin Sonata and Gregor Piatigorsky introduced Martinu's Variations on a Russian Theme. In 1964, Professor Ralph Shapey founded the Contemporary Chamber Players (CCP), making the University's dedication to new music and new composers official. Almost 40 years later, the CCP continues to keep Mandel Hall a centenarian on the cutting edge of new music performance.
Now organized as the University of Chicago Presents and including four concert series and a number of related events, professional concerts continue to animate Mandel Hall. The venerable venue has undergone only one major renovation since its opening: in 1980-81, a $2 million project improved acoustics and stage lighting, as well as expanding stage, dressing room and backstage space. The 2003-04 season marked the beginning of the Hall's second century.