President Dwight D. Eisenhower Plans His Remarks at the Groundbreaking for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

It was one of the one of the most significant domestic events in the latter years of his presidency, and was designed to be a model of urban development and to give the United States a cultural venue comparable or superior to those in other world capitals

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This is the first Eisenhower letter we have ever seen relating to the founding of Lincoln Center, which perfectly reflected the prosperous, can-do spirit of the age

The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was one of the most significant domestic events in the latter years of the Eisenhower presidency. It perfectly...

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President Dwight D. Eisenhower Plans His Remarks at the Groundbreaking for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

It was one of the one of the most significant domestic events in the latter years of his presidency, and was designed to be a model of urban development and to give the United States a cultural venue comparable or superior to those in other world capitals

This is the first Eisenhower letter we have ever seen relating to the founding of Lincoln Center, which perfectly reflected the prosperous, can-do spirit of the age

The Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was one of the most significant domestic events in the latter years of the Eisenhower presidency. It perfectly reflected the prosperous, can-do spirit of the age, and had two central purposes. The first was to create a complex to make the performing arts accessible to the masses as well as to the elites, and to give New York City, as the de facto cultural capital of the United States, a venue comparable or superior to those in other world capitals. The second was to be a model of urban development by remaking the Upper West Side. It was an integral part of – and a landmark for – the comeback of American city centers that remade the face of America. Lincoln Center’s creation also marked the first time that a city attempted to use the arts as a catalyst for urban renewal and economic development on such a vast scale.

From the arts end, the vision was articulated by Leonard Bernstein, conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He maintained that Lincoln Center was “a remarkable project” and would be “a great center of the performing arts, the like of which the world has never seen.” Organizations that would find a new home there included, in addition to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Ballet, New York City Opera, Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center, and The Juilliard School.

Groundbreaking for the Lincoln Center was set for May 14, 1959, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower was invited to give some remarks and break the first ground. Howard S. Cullman was a philanthropist, businessman, and Broadway “angel” who served for 42 years as a commissioner of the Port of New York Authority and for a decade as its board chairman. He was also a fundraiser whose efforts helped establish Lincoln Center, which was his pet project, and had a hand in the planning for the groundbreaking.

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, April 27, 1959, to Cullman, predicting rather too optimistically that he would not be required to say more than a few words at the Lincoln Center groundbreaking. “Thank you for telling me about Mr. Slocum. It is my understanding, however, that at the groundbreaking ceremonies of the Lincoln Center practically nothing in the way of a talk is expected of me. Someone – I believe C.D. Jackson – did send me a few suggested remarks, but at the moment (probably because of the rash of talks I have been making lately) I think I should stick to a simple sentence.” The letter is signed “D.E.” Charles D. Jackson was a long-time Eisenhower advisor and speechwriter. Mounted to a light board.

At the event on May 14, musicians representing the Lincoln Center constituents participated: Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic and the Juilliard Chorus, and Leonard Warren and Risë Stevens, both of the Metropolitan Opera, performed excerpts from I Pagliacci and Carmen. A crowd of 12,000 gathered to observe and take part. Then Ike spoke, and unlike his prediction in this letter, he had something to say, and his words were moving, important, and articulated a sense of the time and of the moment that would be hard to match.

“Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts”, Eisenhower stated, “symbolizes an increasing interest in America in cultural matters, as well as a stimulating approach to one of the Nation’s pressing problems: urban blight.” He continued, “At Lincoln Center Americans will have new and expanded opportunities for acquiring a real community of interest through common contact with the performing arts. American technology, labor, industry, and business are responsible for the 20th Century freedom of the individual – making free a greater portion of his time in which to improve the mind, body, and the Spirit.” He boldly manifested that “the beneficial influence of this great cultural adventure will not be limited to our borders here…[Here] will occur a true interchange of the fruits of national cultures…Here will develop a mighty influence for peace and understanding throughout the world.”

Ike then lifted a spade and broke the ground. As soon as he turned the first spade of earth, Bernstein launched the orchestra and a choir from the Juilliard School into Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus.

This is the first Eisenhower letter we have ever seen relating to the founding of Lincoln Center, and a search of public sale records going back forty years shows no others.

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