In 1890, after several years of moving from place to place to accommodate the growing number of members, the leaders of St. Cecilia Society took steps toward the dream of its own building with the purchase of a lot on Sheldon Avenue. But a zoning conflict forced the sale of the land, and the dream was put on hold. Two years later, St. Cecilia purchased the current property at 24 Ransom NE and commissioned Henry Ives Cobb, the prominent Chicago architect, to design a “simple and dignified” temple of music.
Work on the new building began immediately, and St. Cecilia members mounted an ambitious fundraising effort. Teams of members designed and sold calendars, cookbooks, and a souvenir silver spoon produced by Herkner Jewelers. They sold chicken and oyster dinners to the general public, staged performances in the old Powers Opera House and produced a special edition of the Grand Rapids Evening Press. The new building was completed by the spring of 1894 at a total cost, including furnishings, of $53,000.
The St. Cecilia building was dedicated in November of 1894 and was the only building in the world built by women solely for the study, appreciation and performance of music.
The beautiful Tiffany window was added the following year. Following the classical style, the facade was divided into three parts. The base was made of sandstone, the middle section was brick and at the top where a cornice and terra cotta frieze graced with plump cherubs heralding the building’s purpose with their trumpets. The interior featured the Library (today’s Idema Room) with cleverly built-in storage for music, and the Reception Room (today called the Wege Recital Hall), each with its own lovely fireplace and mantel and huge, arched windows looking out on Ransom Avenue.
The soul of the building was the auditorium, with more than 500 main-floor seats, intricately looped and gathered draperies over the proscenium arch, graceful chandeliers and a skylight made up of a series of 16 stained glass panels which, when lit by the sun, bathed the space in a golden glow. Windows in the upstairs ballroom opened out into the auditorium to accommodate balcony seating. Over the years, the building has undergone many repairs and renovations.
Major repairs in 1901 reinforced the roof beams. Renovations in 1925 eliminated a troublesome auditory “ghost” by removing the skylight, closing off the balcony and taking down two massive pillars located in the middle of the auditorium. These changes were extremely successful. To this day, the auditorium is considered an acoustical gem, one of the finest recital halls in this country or abroad.
In 1974, St. Cecilia embarked upon the first phase of a series of major improvements that included modernizing the heating and electrical systems and remodeling the auditorium, which was later named for the Royce family, major benefactors of the organization.
A decade later, community support through the Second Century campaign funded significant upgrades that included making the building and the stage barrier free. In 1996, the Opus 2 capital campaign was launched to restore, maintain and preserve the building for generations to come. With completion of that project in 1998, the building was in fine shape as it headed toward the new century.
The St. Cecilia Music Center building has weathered the ravages of time, the Great Depression and the threat of demolition to make way for downtown urban renewal. Its place today in the cultural life of the region is truly a testament to the long history of support and commitment that it has received from generations of members and music lovers throughout the West Michigan community.