A home worthy of great music

When scheduling the Feb. 8 dedication of the renovated Hill Hall and ribbon cutting for its modernized auditorium, the music department certainly planned to show off its superior acoustics with performances of Bach and Schubert by faculty and students.

But organizers probably didn’t count on a sunny, 71-degree day in the midst of winter.

“Again God proved he’s a Tar Heel and gave us a warm day to really show off the air conditioning,” Doug Zinn, executive director of the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, told the audience in the now comfortably air-conditioned, 450-seat auditorium. The performance space is named in honor of Chancellor Emeritus James Moeser and his wife, Susan, both faculty members in the department of music.

“Hill Hall’s renovation is transformative,” said Chancellor Carol L. Folt, calling it an “extraordinary performing arts facility that is befitting to a first-rate, world-class music program.”

The dedication celebrated the changes 18 months and $15 million of private gifts had brought to the building, which turns 100 this year. Some improvements are flashy, like the remodeling of the rotunda into a dramatic lobby and reception area. But many are behind-the-scenes changes, such as a renovated backstage area, and improvements to the daily use by faculty, staff and students, including a new faculty-student gathering space, a seminar room, a graduate student lounge, a state-of-the-art music classroom and a new band suite.

“What was once a tired, dysfunctional building – which we still loved – is now a source of pride and inspiration for the campus,” said music department Chair Louise Toppin. “The opening of this state-of-the-art auditorium and the surrounding renovated classroom spaces are a much needed boost for this hard-working faculty.”

Kevin Guskiewicz, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, described the reactions of people entering the renovated space for the first time. “As people were entering the auditorium, I heard, ‘Wow, wow, wow,’” he said. “At long last, Hill Hall is a space as glorious as the music that has happened here for more than three-quarters of a century.”

This is Hill Hall’s second transformation. The building began as a Carnegie library, one of 2,509 public libraries built between 1883 and 1929 by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

The Carnegie library was transformed into a home for the music department in the 1930s, after Wilson Library opened. John Sprunt Hill, an alumnus and one of the University’s first private donors, provided most of the money for the addition of an auditorium. His wife, Annie Louise Watts Hill, donated a large pipe organ. The renovated building was christened Hill Hall in honor of the Hills, who stipulated that it should only be used for music and to host many concerts and recitals.

While not originally designed as a performance space, Hill Hall was nevertheless the concert hall for the campus until the much larger Memorial Hall opened. Hill Hall continued to showcase the talents of music faculty, students and special visiting artists – except in the summer, when the lack of air conditioning made the auditorium unusable.

In 2014, the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust contributed $5 million to kickstart a campaign to renovate Hill Hall. Tom Kenan, executive director of the Thomas S. Kenan III Foundation, later donated the money for the glossy black nine-foot Steinway concert grand piano onstage for the dedication. When he was introduced, the audience spontaneously gave him a standing ovation.

Kenan leaned conspiratorially over the podium. “I really think I love the music department a little bit more than the rest of the University,” he confided, holding his finger and thumb about an inch apart.

“It’s a thrilling occasion to be here today,” he said. “I hope this will be a lasting tribute to musicians, faculty and students for years to come.”

In recounting the history of the building, Kenan reminded the audience that much of the new stage – decorated for the occasion with blue and white balloons topped with inflated black music notes – had been taken up by the pipes for the “monstrous” pipe organ donated by Annie Hill. He nodded to the Moesers, both accomplished organists, noting that while the new auditorium doesn’t have an organ, “it is wired for one and it hasn’t left our dreams.”

Zinn had high praise for the Moesers, congratulating the former chancellor for renovating Memorial Hall and hiring Emil Kang as director of Carolina Performing Arts. “One of the glorious things for me is the naming of this hall for James and Susan Moeser,” he said. “When Dr. Moeser arrived on this campus 17 years ago to assume the role of chancellor, it was clear that he and Susan were not only highly respected artists. They are deeply passionate about the vital role of arts in the academy.”

To celebrate the grand opening of Moeser Auditorium, the department of music will host the Spectrum Concert, a scholarship benefit, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25. Tickets are $10 for general admission, $5 for students and UNC faculty and staff.

Story by Susan Hudson, University Gazette and video by Rob Holliday, Office of University Communications.