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Janet A. and Willis S. Strauss Performing Arts Center:
Making Music For Decades

by Charles Reed

Unless you’re a music major, there’s a very strong chance you’ve never stepped foot inside the Strauss Performing Arts Center, but you almost certainly know where it is on campus. Located in some pretty prime real estate, between the campanile, CPACS Building, and Milo Bail Student Center, the Strauss Performing Arts Center has been home to the UNO Department of Music, and the dozens of programs within the department, for nearly 40 years.

The building was officially named the Janet A. and Willis S. Strauss Performing Arts Center in 1984, more than ten years after construction was completed on the building in 1972. Strauss Performing Arts Center Under ConstructionThe building was named after the Omaha philanthropist couple that, then-chancellor Del Weber said, had “and extraordinary involvement in and impact on Omaha and our campus.”

Strauss Construction in 1972

Prior to the construction of the Performing Arts Center, which was initially labeled a Fine Arts Center, the music department had been housed in an small annex just south of the Sapp Fieldhouse. The annex held only two practice rooms, one of which doubled as an instrument storeroom. The conditions were so bad, in fact, that in one room, which housed two grand pianos, there was only room for six students to sit despite enrollment being seven students or higher. The odd-student-out usually wound up sitting on or at the instructor’s desk.

Through the spring and summer of 1969, the Nebraska legislature and Governor stalled on the funding of a building due to a lack of a master plan for the university. By December, $ 1.9 million had been allocated by the legislature for the project, less than half of the initial $5 million request.

Plans and bids for the complex began in earnest in 1971 with a summer deadline to begin construction. According to a Gateway article published about the complex, it would have 56,000 square feet of floor space on two levels. It would contain a recital hall with seating for 500. It would also contain a rehearsal room, administrative offices, conference rooms, seminar rooms and classrooms.

Strauss in 1973

This was all part of what was called “Phase I” of the building. Moving to “Phase II” Strauss Completedwould consist of creating speech and drama facilities in addition to the space already allocated for the Department of Music.

The summer start date for construction went off without a hitch, but it wasn’t long before engineers working on the facility went on strike in tandem with the iron workers, brick-layers and painters who were constructing an addition to the Milo Bail Student Center. However, the project was actually completed before the original deadline of mid-1973.

Once completed in 1972, the reviews of the building were overwhelmingly positive from faculty and students. However, this didn’t mean all the kinks had been worked out. The first summer in the building proved to be less than optimal as air conditioning was, at best, limited and classes had to be moved out of the new building to avoid issues with heat exhaustion. The problem, such that it was, was promptly corrected by the end of the summer in time for UNO’s first summer commencement since 1950, which took place in the performing arts center.

For the next 11 years the performing arts center held recitals, guest artists, and yes, even classes, until it’s formal renaming as the Strauss Performing Arts Center.

Strauss Performance

What turned out to be the biggest contribution of the renaming, however, was not the change itself but the announcement that a Casavant organ would finally be placed in the building’s recital hall after the space designed for it sat empty for nearly 13 years. The Casavant organ was a 17-ton, $300,000 addition to the performing arts center. The organ was so large, 28 feet high and 29 feet wide, that it had to be shipped in pieces – 5,000 pieces to be exact.

After the organ was installed, it was used for a formal dedication with Organist Marilyn Masonfrom the University of Michigan performing a piece written by the chair of the music department, Roger Foltz, especially for the occasion.

Since the dedication of the building in 1985, the Strauss Performing Arts Center has largely gone unchanged, but certainly not unutilized. In addition to student performances and recitals, Strauss is often the site of campus-wide honors ceremonies, guest artist performances, administrative speeches and community events.

At almost 40 years old, there are no plans to renovate the Strauss Performing Arts Center and that is a testament to the design and construction of the building from when it was built.

Strauss Performance

Yes the hallways might be a little small on the second floor and the large recital rooms could use some more space, or at least a better outside view, but these are minor quibbles for a building that has largely served its purpose and served it well over the last four decades.

Willis Strauss passed away in 2004, survived by his wife, Janet, who will be celebrating her 90th birthday soon. Today, the Strauss' charity and Willis Strauss' memory are honored by the pristine and highly-trafficed building.Although, it really shouldn’t be a surprise given how strong and enduring the support of the Strausses were to UNO in the 1970s and 1980s.

Where the Strauss Performing Arts Center goes from here, and whether or not it will ever be truly renovated or given a new addition remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, the building will continue to serve UNO as a home for the Department of Music and a space where the performing arts can flourish.

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