7 Years Later, Disney Hall Breaks Ground Once Again


After 12 years of planning and hope, mismanagement and recriminations--not to mention fund-raising--the Walt Disney Concert Hall is finally going up.

Today at 9, city, county and arts dignitaries will gather at the site’s parking structure to formally mark the beginning of above-ground construction on the new home for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In many ways, it will be a typical civic event, complete with an appearance by Mayor Richard Riordan and plenty of fanfare (in this case, literally--the orchestra will perform).

The latest contributions to the project--totaling $5.5 million--will be announced, bringing the building fund in line with the confirmed costs of $274 million.


Walt Disney’s daughter Diane Disney Miller will join schoolchildren in unveiling a 40-foot-long sign featuring a photo of the model for architect Frank O. Gehry’s spectacular, undulating design.

But--not so typical--the event in many ways will be less a celebration of a groundbreaking than an end to years of highly publicized money and management problems that nearly sank the project.

“I will be there at the groundbreaking--it’s my second one, you know,” Miller said a few days before the event. “I thought [the first one] was a real groundbreaking, and it wasn’t. But this is.”

Gehry, who in 1988 won the international competition to become the concert hall architect with his controversial, all-curves design, echoed her sentiments.


“I believe them now,” Gehry said with a laugh. “You know the feeling of something that you have been waiting for for a long time? As soon as I see some stuff going up, then I’ll feel it.”

Said Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra’s music director: “When I see the steel rods sticking out of the garage, I will open a very nice bottle of something.” Salonen is in London and will be unable to attend today’s ceremonies.

“I hope that it will be seen as the Carnegie Hall of the West,” he added.

It will definitely be a bigger and architecturally splashier monument to music than the New York City landmark. The final design of the block-square Bunker Hill campus includes a 2,290-seat concert hall, gardens and other public spaces, two outdoor amphitheaters, rehearsal rooms, the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, and offices for the Philharmonic.

The concert hall dream began in 1987, with a donation of $50 million from Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian B. Disney.

On Dec. 10, 1992, Miller stood side by side with her sister, Sharon Disney Lund, at the first groundbreaking ceremony, for the underground parking garage that forms the base for the hall.

Back then, the hall, budgeted at $110 million (with an additional $100 million allotted for the garage, paid for by a county bond issue) was expected to open in 1997--with Lillian Disney as the front-row guest of honor.

Today’s event takes place almost a year after Lillian Disney’s death at the age of 98 (Sharon Disney Lund died of cancer in 1993), and six years after spiraling cost estimates in 1994 revealed that the hall would cost more than twice the original estimate. The money problems caused the county to shut down construction in 1995.


The stalled project was revived in 1996 when billionaire businessman and arts patron Eli Broad joined Riordan and Andrea van de Kamp, board chairman of the Music Center, to launch a funding drive that raised more than $120 million in less than three years. Donors include the Ralphs/Food 4 Less Foundation and company chief Ron Burkle ($15 million) and the Arco Foundation ($10 million). Gifts of $5 million came from Wells Fargo, Bank of America, the Times Mirror Foundation, Riordan and Broad.

Broad has since stepped down from his position as chairman of the Disney Hall oversight committee, replaced by William E.B. Siart, but he remains active in the Disney Hall effort.

In December 1997, the drive netted a $25-million matching grant from the Walt Disney Co., which virtually assured that the hall could meet its financial needs. In addition, Roy E. Disney and his wife, Patty, added a $5-million donation specifically to build a theater on the site for CalArts.

But 1997 did not mark the end of the project’s problems. In May of that year, Broad and Riordan endorsed a “design-build” plan that would have authorized contractors, rather than Gehry, to complete design drawings for the hall. Gehry threatened to walk off the project. He also argued that Broad’s cost estimate for the hall, $220 million, was unrealistically low.

That August, Miller, who up to that point had avoided personal involvement in construction concerns, forced the issue by authorizing up to $14 million in Disney family funds already donated to the project to be used to have Frank O. Gehry & Associates to complete design work. Broad agreed to the working estimate of $255 million predicted by Gehry and his firm.

Since then, the Disney Hall effort has flowed fairly smoothly. In July 1998, fund-raisers announced an additional $20 million in donations; in February, $12 million came into the coffers and the addition of a Philharmonic administration building to the complex was confirmed. (The Philharmonic is charged with raising funds to pay for the structure). The two donations to be announced today are $5 million from the Pacific Bell Foundation and $500,000 from Deloitte & Touche.

In September, the garage was shut down to reinforce some pillars and repair some cracks, work that is commonplace in large concrete structures, according to Gehry.

Then last week, construction crews blocked off 2nd Street between Hope Street and Grand Avenue to begin removing portions of the exterior walls of the garage to provide access to the southwest corner of the site, where the CalArts theater will be. Trailer field offices are being set up across the street on Grand Avenue.


During the next three months, three levels of structural slabs in the garage will be cut out to construct the shell for the CalArts theater. The temporary garage roof will be removed, as will the current exterior garage walls.

In April or May, the structural frame of the hall will go up atop the garage. At midyear, the building’s metal cladding--to be stainless steel, in accordance with a decision only recently made by Gehry--will begin to appear. By the end of the year, the exterior will be substantially complete, and interior finishes can begin.

True to Disney Hall tradition, the fact that all funding is in hand for the basic building costs does not end the story. Now, Disney Hall officials plan to launch a fund-raising drive for an additional $20 million to upgrade finishing details--allowing for more sophisticated electronic systems, outdoor public artworks and more durable or more luxurious decorative options, such as granite counter tops instead of cheaper materials in restrooms.

And Gehry still has one more decision to make. Although he selected stainless steel over titanium--the metal he used for the exterior of his highly acclaimed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain--he still has to decide how to finish the metal. “I want it to be reflective enough so in our California light, during the day, it goes almost white, so it looks like white sails,” he said.

In an interview Tuesday, Riordan expressed his relief at that the bulldozers are finally rolling.

“I think this is a great city, and great cities have great buildings and monuments,” he said. “I think Los Angeles will be known for the Disney Hall. It is something to be proud of, to see the public and private sector getting together to realize something this monumental.

“I think we’ll significantly improve the culture in Los Angeles. It has always had more culture than its reputation says,” Riordan continued. “Now, it’s reputation will come up to meet the reality.”


Another Start for Disney Concert Hall

Construction of the Walt Disney Concert Hall will begin again after years of planning, money woes and fund-raising. A look at the center and its financing history:


Disney Hall Funding Timeline

1987: Lillian B. Disney gives $50 million for a concert hall to be named after her late husband, Walt Disney.


1991: Cost of the hall is estimated at $110 million.

1992: First groundbreaking ceremony.


1995: Cost estimates soar to $265 million. County supervisors shut down the project pending further review.

1996: Mayor Riordan and Eli Broad, chief executive of SunAmerica, spearhead new fund-raising effort.


January-April 1997: Drive raises more than $150 million.

December 1997: Funding for Disney Hall is virtually assured when a $25-million donation from Walt Disney Co. brings the total fund-raising effort to $168 million.


December 1999: Second groundbreaking; a final estimate pegs cost of the building at $274 million.


Opening date: Sometime during the 2002-03

L.A. Philharmonic season.


Based on drawings from Frank O. Gehry & Associates