Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is a 16.3-acre (6.6-hectare) complex of buildings in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of the borough of Manhattan in New York City. It hosts many notable performing arts organizations, which are nationally and internationally renowned, including the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Ballet.
A consortium of civic leaders and others led by, and under the initiative of, John D. Rockefeller III built Lincoln Center as part of the “Lincoln Square Renewal Project” during Robert Moses’ program of urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s.
Respected architects were contracted to design the major buildings on the site, and over the next thirty years the previously blighted area around Lincoln Center became a new cultural hub.
Rockefeller was Lincoln Center’s inaugural president from 1956 and became its chairman in 1961. He is credited with raising more than half of the $184.5 million in private funds needed to build the complex, including drawing on his own funds; the Rockefeller Brothers Fund also contributed to the project. The center’s three buildings, David Geffen Hall (formerly Avery Fisher Hall), David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater) and the Metropolitan Opera House were opened in 1962, 1964 and 1966, respectively.
While the center may have been named because it was located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, it is unclear whether the area was named as a tribute to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. The name was bestowed on the area in 1906 by the New York City Board of Aldermen, but records give no reason for choosing that name.
There has long been speculation that the name came from a local landowner, because the square was previously named Lincoln Square. City records from the time show only the names Johannes van Bruch, Thomas Hall, Stephan de Lancey, James de Lancey, James de Lancey, Jr. and John Somerindyck as area property owners. One speculation is that references to President Lincoln were omitted from the records because the mayor in 1906 was George B. McClellan, Jr., son of General George B. McClellan, who was general-in-chief of the Union Army early in the American Civil War and a bitter rival of Lincoln’s.
From groundbreaking in 1959 to the inauguration of Alice Tully Hall and The Juilliard School in 1969, the “Construction of Lincoln Center” traces the beginnings of what would become the world’s first, and now leading, performing arts center. This is the story of how Lincoln Center grew into the cultural heart of New York City and one of the most iconic cultural destinations in the world. The exhibition includes rare photographs of the 16.3-acre campus and archival footage from many of the halls’ opening nights. Images include President Eisenhower breaking ground on the site in 1959, Marc Chagall at the unveiling of his two murals, which hang in the Metropolitan Opera House lobby, and dancers from the New York City Ballet testing the specially designed stage at the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater). The images offer a glimpse into the extraordinary convergence of the artistic, political, and business worlds that gave rise to Lincoln Center. In 2012, Lincoln Center completed a $1.2 billion campus renovation, ushering in a new era for the campus and the organizations that call it home. Yet, as can be seen in this exhibit, much of the campus’s original beauty—such as its iconic architecture, artistic masterpieces, and beloved fountain—continues to shine.