Ewart Memorial Hall has been a cultural hub of downtown Cairo since it opened its doors in 1928, serving as a gathering place for lovers of literature, cinema, music and all forms of arts and culture. “Ewart Memorial Hall is not only one of the oldest AUC facilities; it is also one of the largest, and to many in Cairo, it is the locus of cultural activity,” Lawrence Murphy noted in The American University in Cairo: 1919 – 1987.
How It All Began
When the Division of Extension (now the School of Continuing Education) was established in 1924, Charles Watson, AUC’s first and founding president, needed a large meeting hall to host public lectures and present films, but he wasn’t able to raise money for that from potential donors. It was not until 1925, when two American women visited the campus, that his vision started to become a reality. Ruth Litt, one of Watson’s old friends who had donated a cup to honor students, was accompanied by another woman who had recently inherited a big fortune and was interested in contributing to AUC. When told that the University needed an auditorium, she offered $80,000, which later became $100,000, to pay for its construction. While she asked to remain anonymous, she requested that the auditorium be named for her grandfather, William Dana Ewart, who had previously visited Cairo to improve his ailing health. “It seems to be distinctly the hand of God opening the door,” a delighted Watson wrote in 1925 to the Board of Trustees Chairman William Bancroft Hill, after whom Hill House in AUC Tahrir Square is named. The plan was to create a building that would accommodate not only the auditorium, but also AUC’s needs in terms of classrooms and offices. While the building would cost approximately $150,000, the original gift was spent on the auditorium. The Board of Trustees paid the rest of the money.
A Work of Art
Architect A. St. John Diament was responsible for designing the building and auditorium. Situated on the south side of the Historic Palace, Ewart Memorial Hall was built with the “best style of Arabesque architecture” inside and outside the hall — on doors, windows, lamps and seats. The inscription above the stage — Let Knowledge Grow from More to More, But More of Reverence in Us Dwell — was inspired by the Kufi script and taken from the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1849 In Memoriam. The auditorium was built to ensure the utmost comfort for the audience: a seating capacity of 1,150 people, the largest in Cairo at the time; wide rows and aisles, as well as space for extra seats in times of a packed audience; every seat having a clear view of the stage with no obstructions; a balcony; proper acoustics; insulation against external noise; non-glare lighting; a forced ventilation system; and sufficient retiring rooms located on both floors. Construction began in June 1926, the cornerstone laid in 1927 and final touches completed in April 1928. The laying of the cornerstone was “such a remarkable day,” as Murphy described it. Hundreds of AUC friends attended this special occasion, including a personal representative of Egypt’s King Fouad; Ruth Litt, who traveled from New York as the donor representative; and William Bancroft Hill, who spoke on behalf of the trustees. President Watson explained that the Division of Extension and Ewart Memorial Hall would “place at the disposal of Egypt … the best that American experience and experimentation can afford.”
As Murphy noted, the construction of Ewart Memorial Hall earned AUC a “more stable and respectful status in Egypt, where the king himself had recognized the importance of the AUC and prominent families started sending their sons there.” In 1937, the Egyptian Broadcasting Company aired monthly radio concerts by Om Kolthoum, the legendary Egyptian singer, from AUC’s Ewart Memorial Hall, solidifying AUC’s position as a “benevolent community agency,” as Murphy put it. “Audiences throughout Egypt and the Arab world knew that Om Kalthoum’s performances came from Ewart Hall.” Egyptian scholar Taha Hussein, who advocated for modernization in Egypt, lectured at Ewart Hall. In addition, the hall was a major cinema destination. The building was filled to capacity for the screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings year after year. The hall also featured performances by the French singer Édith Piaf, European and U.S. bands, the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra and the Egyptian Musical Society. School groups used Ewart Hall to present their programs and hold commencement ceremonies. “[Ewart Hall] turned out to be highly successful, highly satisfactory — so that within a matter of a few months, we had completely gobbled up the entertainment market in Cairo. All the recitals, all the concerts, anything of every value … came to our hall,” said Professor Herbert W. Vandersall, who taught at AUC for more than four decades since 1920, in a 1973 oral history interview with the AUC Archives. Since then, Ewart Hall has been witnessing history and has been a part of it. It has hosted distinguished national and international figures over the years. It continued to be the prime destination for AUC’s commencement ceremonies, from the late 1920s until February 1988, when the University had to find a bigger place to accommodate the increasing number of students and their parents. Sherif Kamel ’88, ’90, ’13, dean of AUC’s School of Business, sees the hall as a “symbol of AUC” and feels privileged to have been among the last graduating class whose commencement ceremony was held at Ewart Hall. “We, as graduates of that class,” Kamel wrote on the AUC Memories webpage, “were extremely lucky and fortunate to be among the generations that graduated from Ewart Hall, adding more excitement and joy to the uniqueness of this lifetime experience in such a breathtaking setting located in the heart of the Main Campus of AUC.”
“[Ewart Hall] turned out to be highly successful, highly satisfactory — so that within a matter of a few months, we had completely gobbled up the entertainment market in Cairo. All the recitals, all the concerts, anything of every value … came to our hall.”
– Professor Herbert W. Vandersall
Today, more than 90 years after its construction, Ewart Memorial Hall has been renovated to suit modern-day demands. The hall’s original technology was only feasible for spoken words and incorporated basic lighting and sound systems. AUC has been partially maintaining the hall since its establishment, and in the early 1990s, alumni donations were used to renovate it. In 2015, a grant by the United States Agency for International Development’s American Schools and Hospitals Abroad was used to refurbish Ewart Hall. This included changing the sound system to improve acoustic quality in the hall, updating the lighting system to be both energy-efficient and have dynamic control and quality, revamping the video and presentation equipment to meet advanced audiovisual needs, and installing an advanced control system to monitor audio-visuals anywhere inside the hall. In addition, a wireless system has enabled simultaneous translation into three languages to accommodate a multilingual audience, and a newly installed assistive listening system makes events accessible to a greater variety of people.
The renovation project is part of a larger plan to revive AUC Tahrir Square as a cultural center in downtown Cairo. These upgrades ensure that Ewart Hall continues to be a prime destination for hosting various community and cultural events, for AUC and beyond, including public lectures; seminars; conferences; speeches; concerts; talent shows; musical, dance and theatrical performances; film screenings and other public events. Throughout the renovation process, the historical look and feel of the place had to be taken into consideration. “Reviving such a cherished place as Ewart Hall while preserving its archaeological and classic identity was not easy, particularly that the place is under the accountability of the General Authority of Monuments,” noted Nader Sedhom, director of event support services at AUC’s Classroom Technologies and Media Services and co-director of the Ewart Memorial Hall renovation project. “With the help of our engineering department, we had to find a reliable team to run the raceways and cables for the new technology while preserving all the vintage wall inscriptions.”
The sound system was updated to a high-quality reputable brand, and new microphones, monitors and wires have been put in place to ensure the highest sound quality. Acoustic tiles were also added on the walls, without spoiling the vintage identity, to guarantee the purest sound and eliminate any reverberation time. Front-fills to enhance the sound quality have been added to the stage, while maintaining its unique architecture and engravings. “To maintain the hall’s aesthetic appeal while giving it a modern touch, the stage curtains and the floor’s wall-to-wall carpet have been renewed, as well as the upholstery — keeping the original chairs untouched,” said Sedhom. The lighting has been modernized through the installation of light fixtures; a lighting console; red, blue and green LEDs; and moving heads. A new, high-quality dimming system has replaced the old one, and fixtures above the stage facilitate professional background lighting during theatrical performances. In terms of equipment, an advanced projector with a perforated screen improves sound effects, and a huge LED screen highlights the entire stage area during presentations. “The screen goes back and forth to create the best vision for everyone in the hall,” said Sedhom, noting, “One of the most interesting additions are the moving video cameras, which have been placed at all corners and at the center of the hall to capture different audience reactions.” Despite these renovations and changes, Ewart Memorial Hall will remain the same for many AUC graduates — holding a special place in their hearts and minds. As one alumna, Sophie Farag ’90, ’93, explained on the AUC Memories webpage, “Ewart is a beautiful hall that carries many memories for all AUCians.” For AUC, it will continue to serve as a cultural icon in the heart of Cairo, dedicated — as is inscribed outside the hall — to the “well-being of the people of Egypt and neighboring lands.”