A Brief History of this Grand Old Hall
by Alan M. MacDougall
A list of America’s most important works of architecture would include a number of important buildings by the turn-of-the-century firm of McKim, Mead and White, These would be found in New York, Washington and Boston: Columbia University; the National War College; the White House; the Boston Public Library; and Symphony Hall. The list would also include Wilmington’s Memorial Hall.
Major Childs, a Civil War hero and Wilmington’s richest citizen, hired Stanford White to design “Childs’ Tavern” just before the turn of the century. White’s partner William Mead was a native of Brattleboro, and well known to Childs. Childs built his tavern to encourage the tourist trade which would soon replace lumbering, the source of his fortune, as the Deerfield Valley’s largest industry.
Just as the century turned, Childs decided the town needed a theatre to provide entertainment to the tourists and a gathering place for citizens. At that point, the aging generation who had fought the Civil War, was reaching its golden years and Childs wanted to memorialize his brothers-in-arms.
Childs went back to McKim, Mead and White to design a small auditorium to be built adjacent to Childs’ Tavern. It was a propitious time to ask for such a building. Theodore Roosevelt had just hired his friend McKim to redesign the interior of the White House. The East Room, the President’s Ballroom was the most elegant of the rooms which McKim created. The Army War College was being built at the same time. The Officers’ Club Ballroom was a reproduction of the East Room. In Boston, Major Henry Higginson, founder of the Boston Symphony, commissioned McKim to design a concert hall.
Symphony Hall in Boston Massachusetts was the first building to be designed on scientific acoustical principles and is still the world’s finest concert hall. Its size and shape reflect the dimensions of the “East Room” of The White House. The proportion of the hall however is a miniature version of Symphony Hall.
Wilmington’s Memorial Hall is a synthesis of these buildings. The quiet exterior only hints at the wondrous interior. The narrow, but elegant, proscenium arch and its width relative to the width of the hall are exactly in scale to those in the Boston building. The other dimensions of the room mimic those of Symphony Hall, and the acoustics are extraordinary.