Guide to Carnegie Hall

Alyson Penn

New York City has an abundance of concert halls, but none is quite so storied as Carnegie Hall. Musicians of all walks and genres—such as Russian composer Tchaikovsky, rapper Jay Z, songstress Judy Garland and, on the heels of their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance, the Beatles—have entertained crowds in the venerable space; indeed, playing the venue looms as something of an unspoken benchmark in many artists' careers. The Italian Renaissance–style building—with a brick-and-terra-cotta facade and, in its main auditorium, plush red seats, impeccable acoustics and open design (there's no curtain, for a start)—has also hosted politicians, authors, comedians and religious leaders for more than a century.

Industrial tycoon Andrew Carnegie first conceived of the concert hall in 1887 while on his honeymoon voyage to Scotland, during which the young conductor Walter Damrosch helped plant the idea. After returning to the States, Carnegie hired architect (and cellist) William Burnet Tuthill to design the venue. As his wife laid the cornerstone, Carnegie declared, "It is probable that this hall will intertwine itself with the history of our country." He wasn't wrong.

The hall invited Tchaikovsky for its May 1891 opening—and his American debut. The composer sold out all five nights; according to lore, ushers were sneaking people in for $1.50. But Carnegie didn't want performances restricted to just classical music. Prominent figures like Mark Twain, Billie Holiday and Winston Churchill came to read, perform and orate. By the end of 1950s, however, Carnegie Hall had begun to fall into disrepair, the resident New York Philharmonic was preparing to decamp for (then under construction) Lincoln Center and a date was even set for the venue's demolition. In 1960 the City stepped in and saved it. Designated a landmark two years later, the venue has been attracting top musical acts and hosting community-based educational programs ever since.

Courtesy, Carnegie Hall Archives

How to get there
Practice, practice, practice. Sorry, old joke.
You can take the N, Q, R or F trains to 57th Street.

881 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019

Marc-Andre Hamelin performing at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Performance schedule

Visit for info on upcoming shows and how to buy tickets.

Detail in the Rose Museum Photo: Richard Termine

What if you don't have time to see a show?

No problem; you can take a $17 guided tour of the venue, or visit the second-floor Rose Museum, dedicated to showcasing the hall's history. It's free and open to the public (October–June, daily, 11am–4pm).

Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Fast facts

• The architect, William Burnet Tuthill, had never designed a concert hall before this; in fact, he hadn't designed many buildings at all (the 1889 Demarest Building, on Fifth Avenue and 33rd Street, bears similarities to Carnegie Hall and is sometimes misattributed to him).
• In some backstage areas you can still see the original rock that was there when the foundation was built in the late 1800s.
• J. K. Rowling "outed" Dumbledore at Carnegie Hall during her Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows book tour.
• There are three concert halls: the subterranean Zankel Hall, mainly for jazz; small Weill Recital Hall, usually given over to chamber music shows; and Isaac Stern Auditorium/Ronald O. Perelman Stage, the main (and largest) theater.
• Simplicity is the key to the design—and the acoustics—with gentle curves, no chandeliers, very little gold and very little marble in the main hall.
• The space that is Zankel Hall, which was originally called Recital Hall, once hosted off-Broadway shows under the name Little Carnegie Playhouse and screened movies under the name Carnegie Hall Cinema.
• In the museum you can find an autographed program by The Beatles and a signed booklet by Martin Luther King Jr.
• There was a speakeasy named Club Richman that opened in the basement next to Carnegie Hall in 1925. Two keys needed to be inserted simultaneously to get in (one from visitor, one from bouncer), and one of the dancers was a young Joan Crawford under a different name.
• Completed in 1896, the Towers over the Hall were designated as residences for working artists and housed the likes of Marlon Brando, Leonard Bernstein, Bill Cunningham and Editta Sherman. In 2010, after a three-year battle, remaining residents were moved out to make way for offices and classrooms.

Nearby attractions

Central Park: The concert hall is only a couple of blocks from the southern end of Manhattan’s largest park.
The Museum of Modern Art: The institution has one of the best collections in the City.
The Plaza Hotel: The Palm Court at this iconic hotel is known for fine dining.
The Shops at Columbus Circle: Spend some time exploring the mall's retail stores and restaurants.