Thea Tjepkema Is Music Hall’s Guardian Angel

When she talks (and researches, writes, lectures, leads tours, and generally enthuses) about Cincinnati’s temple of arts and culture, everyone listens.

Thea Tjepkema knows more about Cincinnati Music Hall—its architecture, its history, its past performers, its recent renovation, and its status as a National Historic Landmark—than anyone on the planet. She calls it “my obsession.”

Thea Tjepkema is photographed with a replacement finial model (made by Arya Design in the West End) on April 19, 2021.

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

She writes about it, lectures about it, gives tours of both its interior and exterior, and, through her Friends of Music Hall (FMH) board position, pushes hard to see that the restoration so well begun in 2016 doesn’t stop. If all goes according to schedule, she will see the sandstone finials, including a sculpture of an outsized lyre below the rose window, restored this summer on the building’s front exterior—approximately a century after they last appeared without damage.

Thea can tell you that the bricks on the west side of Music Hall along Central Parkway are orange common brick because the architect, Samuel Hannaford, wanted them to glow in the sunset. Bricks on the east side, by contrast, are cherry red and pressed in Philadelphia, which is why we think of the building as red brick. How many bricks in all? About 4 million, she says, lugged by hod carriers, mostly Irish.

Inside, she will remind you, the building’s second-floor ballroom, first known as the Greystone, opened in 1928 and was America’s largest dance floor for a time. Nine years later, catering to the nation’s big band craze, it became the Topper Ballroom, the name it carried until 1993.

Encouraged by her husband, Cincinnati Pops Conductor John Morris Russell, to find out which singers or musicians have performed in Music Hall, in the ballroom, or on the main stage, Thea has developed long lists with specific dates. One of them, reflecting her particular interest in the Hall’s African American heritage, includes Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Don Shirley, and Ella Fitzgerald as well as Marian Anderson, Sissieretta Jones, Mamie Smith, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Tjepkema’s and Russell’s initial arrival here in the 1990s piqued Thea’s interest in her husband’s workplace venue, and after moving to Canada and returning again to Cincinnati, she joined the board of the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall, recently renamed the Friends of Music Hall. The city, which owns the building, established the Music Hall Revitalization Corporation in 2010 to finally kick-start a multi-year restoration project.

With a BFA in historic preservation from the Savannah College of Art and Design and a master’s in arts administration from the University of Akron, plus a background curating at the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters Museum in Savannah, Thea came to Cincinnati with solid preparatory credentials. “She takes John’s passion for the Pops and directs it to the building,” says Ed Ryder, a fellow archivist who serves with her on the FMH board. “They’re a great team for promoting Cincinnati music and Music Hall.”

Paul Muller, president of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, agrees. “Thea is one of the most rigorous researchers I’ve come across,” he says. “If you can’t justify a date, she won’t pretend it’s out there. She sees life and joy in historical facts and shares them with others. I’ve gained appreciation for historical aspects of Music Hall I wouldn’t have otherwise because Thea opened it up for me.”

Her full name is Thea Tjepkema (TAY-uh CHEP-ke-muh), but because pronunciation of her last name can be difficult to discern, she’s known across Cincinnati simply as Thea. Her speaking style is informal, and she has a friendly face bracketed by a striking mane of silver-gray hair. She wears glasses with translucent frames, smiles frequently, and sometimes lapses into a laugh over something she’s said.

Two high-profile lectures—one to the Cincinnati Preservation Association’s fall forum on “Muses: The Women of Music Hall” and the other at the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library called “Under One Roof: the African American Experience at Music Hall”—showcased her accessibility, echoed by substantial positive feedback. Each lasted a good hour and chronicled in considerable detail the many women and African Americans who have had outsized impact on Music Hall, either by performing in it or playing a role in shaping it.

Thea recalled for her library audience, for example, that at the formal opening of Music Hall in 1878, building chairman Julius Dexter praised Reuben Springer and his peers who had contributed funds, then said, “Others may have given as much; possibly in proportion to their means, more.… Who may say the contribution of the colored barber is not equal in liberality with any $1,000, or even larger sum, given?”

But who was that barber? Did he really exist? Over a period of six years, countless hours of digging, and help from a library friend, Thea found an old newspaper article about the city’s Black barbers. She matched it to a list of Music Hall’s original contributors and, sure enough, there was the name of Fountain Lewis with his contribution of $20 noted (about $500 in today’s money). She also found a quote from Lewis made some 20 years later about his gift: “And you can depend on it, I’m mighty proud of that fact now.” Digging further, she learned that Lewis and his peers earned most of their livelihoods cutting the hair of white men. One of his clients was Reuben Springer.

“Thea’s research is incredibly thorough,” says fellow FMH board member Joanne Grueter. “During the restoration of Music Hall, she uncovered photographs of the original tracery patterns in the windows reclaimed during work in Corbett Tower. She worked with EverGreene Architectural Arts to replicate the stenciling and colors in the Tower. The black bricks, an important design detail intended by Hannaford, were her discovery. And we now have those back on Music Hall’s facade.”

Thea reads everything she can find about Music Hall, causing her to become intimately familiar over the years with the Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library, the History Library at Union Terminal, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Society for the Preservation of Music Hall’s archives, the Ohio Memory Collection in Columbus, the Kenton County Public Library in Northern Kentucky, the University of Cincinnati’s rare book archives, and the Library of Congress. Tips from fellow Cincinnatians, she says, also have been of immense help.

Judy Williams, a Columbus-based consultant on historic preservation, calls Thea a research detective. “Because of her enthusiasm, her training, her deep love of history, and her personal connection to the building, I felt when I was working with her that her information was wonderful, behind the scenes material that people wouldn’t know,” says Williams. “Sometimes, working with volunteers, you’re not so sure.”

Born in Northern Michigan of Dutch descent, Thea moved to Gainesville, Georgia, when she was 2 so that her father, a poultry manager, could work in what was then “the poultry capital of the world.” When she was 15 and looking for volunteer work, her mother—who held a master’s degree in education with a focus on chemistry and was an early feminist—suggested she become a Candy Striper at a local retirement home. There she befriended a resident named Alex, who, while they played checkers, liked to talk about early times in Gainesville, the buildings that had been there, the houses and stores, and the horses and buggies. Sometimes he’d ask Thea if such and such a building were still standing, so she began to look. And she realized, she says, “that buildings had stories and, taken together, can tell the history of a community.”

Not too many years later, she spent a year in the Netherlands, “where I saw really old buildings,” she says, including a windmill owned by the Tjepkema family. By the time she returned, she knew she loved art and historic architecture but didn’t know what she was going to do about it. At the Savannah College of Art and Design she tried a course in architecture but says she didn’t feel welcome with so many men crowding the classroom.

She thought about painting and graphic design, but nothing seemed quite right until, by chance, she met a professor who taught an introduction to historic preservation. Persuading her to give it a try, he introduced her to her life’s work. “I signed up, and I quickly knew it was exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “I looked at the old newspapers on microfiche, I learned how Sanborn Insurance maps documented buildings, and I discovered how to find things using city directories.”

Thea’s first jobs out of college were at house museums in Savannah: the Telfair Museum, the Owens-Thomas House, and the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts. She left Savannah to become a museum technician at Yosemite National Park, where she catalogued historic photographs, many of them of Theodore Roosevelt. “I hiked a lot,” she says. “I’m an outdoor person. But I decided I wanted to get a master’s in arts administration and manage a house museum.”

Only a handful of schools offered the kind of arts administration program she was looking for, including the University of Akron, where she received a full scholarship and an assistantship to the director of art galleries. “I drove from Yosemite to Akron, Ohio, and I cried, What have I done? But it was a great program. I loved it.”

Returning to Savannah upon graduation, Thea was hired to work at the Owens-Thomas House, and after just a few weeks, she says, she “began bumping into” John Morris Russell, associate conductor of the Savannah Symphony Orchestra. Finding herself at an event where he was speaking about the symphony, she soon found herself thinking, I could marry that guy. He’s such a dynamic speaker!

“Somewhere along the way, John heard me say that I’d just moved back from Akron, and it turned out that he’d been the assistant conductor of the Akron Symphony,” she says. “Like we were following each other around. He said to me, You had classes in Guzzetta Hall. We dated for a year or so in Savannah.”

Russell auditioned with the Cincinnati Symphony in 1995, and Thea enthusiastically accompanied him north for a look around. During her summer between semesters in graduate school, she had worked at the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Mt. Auburn, and from that experience had developed strong positive feelings for Cincinnati. Russell got the job, working under Eric Kunzel for the Pops and Jesús López-Cobos for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and a year later, officially married, they moved here.

Thea’s first impression of Music Hall was “amazement at the sheer scale,” she says. She started reading about its history and did what she could to support Russell, who was trying to diversify his audiences by reaching out to local Black churches. As background, she began researching African American involvement in the building, first the boxers—Ezzard Charles was one of the earliest to fight there—and then the basketball players, the bands in the Greystone Ballroom, and the musical performers.

She thought she was on to something, a story that Cincinnati didn’t tell very well. “I said to myself, This is a small history of America going on right here,” she says. “It was amazing how many bands wanted to play here, hoping to make it to Harlem, partly on the strength of the WLW radio signal, or WSAI or WNKY. You wanted to come to Cincinnati to get on the radio.”

Thea became passionate about Music Hall’s history and future possibilities, but she was also busy with two children—son Jack, who is now a sound engineer at a Chicago recording studio, and daughter Alma, currently taking a gap year before she starts college. Once they were up and out and she could devote more time to Music Hall, she began developing tours on her own, pointing to places of interest on the facade and sharing interesting historical facts. By 2015, she caught the attention of Peter Koenig, president of what was then still the Society for the Preservation of Music Hall, and board member Don Siekmann, who insisted she join them. Not long afterwards, she was on the architecture and planning committee, displaying photographs she’d unearthed from the distant past, asking, Can we do this? Can we do that? Preservation is our middle name!

Thea Tjepkema examines a damaged sandstone finial on the front exterior of Music Hall.

Photograph by Joanne Grueter

Soon enough, when Thea spoke in those board meetings, others listened. She had a presence that, in a comfortable way, radiated authority; she had a vision, and documentation to back it up. “She is a dynamo and a whirling dervish,” says Koenig.

In a May 2016 memo sent to others on the board to make her case for re-creating the original look of Corbett Tower, the no-nonsense specifics of her vision become clear: “Talk to architects about exposing as much of the cove ceiling, stenciling, and original room shape as possible (46 feet wide by 112 feet long by 30 feet high); talk to the lighting crew and make sure of specs and needs; paint analysis: date our stenciling to decide the target restoration date; paint analysis for the walls, so that they are the same date to match the stenciling; most likely the cove trim and crown molding and plaster cove will need repair; hire a restorationist for the stenciling preservation and restoration. Thea.”

Today, the renovated Music Hall is a case study in what taste and money, along with a reverence for the past and confidence in the future, can accomplish. Anyone who knew the old building—with its sandblasted outer skin, tawdry marquee, and bricked-up windows—can rightfully marvel at what stands there now, a monument to the High Victorian Gothic aesthetic, polished and programmed for contemporary needs.

Thea, it seems fair to say, is primarily responsible for much of that new look. She discovered the black bricks on the Elm Street front and Central Parkway back that were integral to Hannaford’s original concept. Having read numerous articles about them, she learned that Hannaford had seen the pattern on a trip to England. She pored over old photos and concluded that he’d wanted this intentionally bold pattern so that people could see the building through the smog of the era.

She recognized that beneath the hall’s sandblasted brick exterior, lost through the decades, a pattern of black bricks had indeed been essential to the way Music Hall first looked in 1878. She wondered if the design team could replicate those bricks during the renovation. The Society for the Preservation of Music Hall had money—not limitless funds, by a long shot, but enough to satisfy the request. The board eventually agreed that the black brick detail would make a critical difference and agreed to bear the extra cost.

Thea also lobbied for the tracery in the three windows below the all-important rose window on Music Hall’s front facade. They’d been covered over in brick for decades, hiding a dropped ceiling in Corbett Tower containing heat and air conditioning. Now they were going to be opened, and that alone was a giant step forward by altering and improving what visitors see as they approach the building. But Thea knew that the Victorians would not have left those windows as simple glass panes; they were all about flowers and ornamentation. They had demanded a tracery design to complement the rose window pattern in the 1870s, and so would she. Again, there was cost. Again, SPMH was able to underwrite it. Again, the board agreed.

And, finally, Thea investigated the exterior lyre sculpture and 10 sandstone finials, each a decorative element at the peaks of the gables. In their original form, the finials referenced the leaves of a plant, leading to a geometric interpretation of a flower with an acorn on the top. Like so much else, they were critical to the building’s design but corroded by time.

Thea found dozens of historic photographs to help her make the case to restore them. Once more, she brought the board along, and now it’s happening. And after the new sandstone pieces are installed, she will go to work on encouraging the Friends of Music Hall to restore the missing metal ornamentation, almost like lace, that once upon a time ran the length of the rooflines between Music Hall’s gables.

With those eventually in place as well, the appearance of Music Hall will come close to the almost fantastical apparition its founders imagined 143 years ago: a joyful, welcoming temple of the musical arts and expositions, filling all who approach it with anticipation.

“Music Hall feels like a sanctuary,” Thea says. When you see it through her eyes, “with the rose window and the three other windows below it, and the light pouring in through them to Corbett Tower,” you know what she means. And you want her to keep fighting for it.

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