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$65 million crescendo for Curtis

Under Lenfest's baton, music institute will get a new hall.

With board chairman H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest acting as a powerful catalyst, the Curtis Institute of Music has raised $65 million for a Locust Street expansion.

Funds now secured, the board of the elite conservatory has given its approval to a project that includes the erection of a new 10-story building. Demolition of existing structures on the site is expected to begin in mid-June, and a new building housing dorms, an orchestra rehearsal room, studios, and practice rooms is slated to open in August 2011.

"In these difficult times this is quite an achievement for Curtis," Lenfest said. "This is right for Curtis, and everyone gathered around to make it happen."

Curtis president Roberto Díaz said the project was "transformational for the school. You can't imagine how exciting it is. This is the answer to issues that have been talked about for so many years."

The building, which will be called Lenfest Hall, promises Center City a design by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates - the Manayunk firm that has worked on numerous vaunted projects worldwide, but few locally.

It is among the last pieces of civic ambition spearheaded by Lenfest in collaboration with the Pew Charitable Trusts and Leonore Annenberg, the philanthropist who died in March. The Pew contributed $3 million; the size of the Annenberg contribution is unknown.

State money is also expected. Curtis officials would not say how much, and declined to identify all of the funders, though most of the $65 million was raised in response to a challenge from Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, that set the project in motion over a relatively short period of time. A total of about 60 gifts were made, nine of them over $1 million, a school spokeswoman said.

In November 2006, the cable mogul-turned-philanthropist signed an agreement of sale on two of the properties at 1610-18 Locust St., one block east of the school's longtime facilities on Rittenhouse Square. He funded feasibility studies and architectural design work, then turned the parcels over to Curtis. He offered $30 million for renovations and new construction if the school raised another $30 million.

The challenge was met by March 31, officials said, and the campaign has 100 percent participation by the board. About $5 million was raised before Lenfest's challenge, bringing the total raised to $65 million.

The expansion project is but one slice of an ambitious strategic plan developed by a team led by Lenfest, president Díaz, and executive vice president Elizabeth Warshawer. That five-year plan calls for the new facilities; renovation of existing buildings; hiring and retaining top faculty and developing related succession plans; altering admission policies to eliminate age limits; increasing touring programs, and upgrading infrastructure to install technology such as in-ground fiber below Locust Street to create Internet2 capability.

Curtis' leadership remains committed to the school's tuition-free policy, which they have argued allows them to admit students - enrollment is about 160 - with talent as the sole criterion.

Expanding the school - which calls for restoration of the historic facades of 1610 and 1618 Locust St. and demolition of the entire former Locust Club building - was to have been part of a much larger campaign that would have included new endowment and money for these other projects.

Fund-raising will continue, Warshawer said, but, in a shift of strategy, those projects will be instituted as funding is found for each.

"In this environment we're willing to go after endowment for specific purposes," she said. "We're not going to have a party announcing that we're launching a big campaign."

The endowing of faculty positions, for instance, is continuing under a $17 million challenge grant from Lenfest; he will give $17 million if a like amount is raised. About half those chairs have been endowed so far, Warshawer said.

An addition to the endowment of $5 million to underwrite operations of the new building will be sought, a spokeswoman said.

Another project looking for money is a proposal to establish personal music libraries so students leave after graduation with a collection of scores and sheet music.

In the meantime, Curtis is struggling to deal with the consequences of depressed investment market values. The endowment is down about 28 percent from the previous year, and some operational cost savings have been instituted. So far no programs have been cut, Warshawer said, but because endowment draws (the amount taken each year from endowment) are averaged out over three years, the worst is yet to come.

"We're continuing to look at what opportunities we see to belt-tighten and ride out the next couple of years," she said.

The new facility could be of some help. Curtis is investigating ways for the building to generate revenue by hosting summer programs, such as Elderhostel, when it is not in use by Curtis students.