This year will mark the end of an era for Strathmore.
Eliot Pfanstiehl, the CEO and founder of Strathmore Hall Foundation Inc., plans to retire in August after leading the arts organization since 1981.
“I have decided that after literally 38 years, and most of it at Strathmore, I’ll see what else there is out in the world,” Pfanstiehl, 68, said in an interview with Bethesda Beat Tuesday. “I’d like to get out of the routine of meetings, budgets and planning and see what else is out there that is compelling and has a deeper meaning. Or I might just do something that’s creative. Those are hard things to do when your bride is Strathmore.”
Strathmore’s Board of Directors is beginning the process to find a replacement for Pfanstiehl, who oversaw the expansion of Strathmore from an organization offering concerts and other events at the Mansion at Strathmore on Rockville Pike in North Bethesda to one offering performing and visual arts at three venues, including The Music Center at Strathmore, which seats 1,976, and the 250-seat AMP by Strathmore, a venue at Pike & Rose.
Robert Brewer, Strathmore’s board chair, said Wednesday the board will begin appointing a search committee soon to find Pfanstiehl’s replacement.
“We have an incredibly strong staff and they’re all committed to seeing us through this transition,” Brewer said.
Brewer credited Pfanstiehl and his staff with transforming Strathmore into what it has become today.
“From a small staff and a single building he always had a vision and that vision was to create an institution of regional significance that will provide meaningful music and other arts opportunities for the diverse cultures of Montgomery County,” Brewer said. “I think he has done a magnificent job with achieving that vision.”
Pfanstiehl landed at the mansion that would later become Strathmore’s first performance venue somewhat by chance in 1979. That was the year Montgomery County purchased The Charles Corby Mansion and its accompanying 11 acres of land on Rockville Pike for $1.2 million.
At the time, Pfanstiehl was working as director of the arts at the county’s recreation department and county officials were hoping to turn the mansion into a community arts center. Pfanstiehl was named to a group of residents tasked with planning the mansion’s future and the group developed a plan that included holding public arts events in the building and renting it to others.
Pfanstiehl said his boss at the time liked the plan and asked him to execute it. If the plan failed, he was told, he could return to his recreation job within a year.
“Within the year I knew I was not going back to being in county government,” Pfanstiehl said about operating the mansion. “I only had to figure out how to pay for it all. My only limit was creativity.”
In those early years, the mansion generated revenue by hosting weddings. The organization added a library featuring books written exclusively by Montgomery County authors. An afternoon tea was launched, and during the summer the mansion began hosting outdoor concerts featuring concert bands such as the U.S. Marine Band.
When more than 1,500 people showed up to some of the concerts, Pfanstiehl said he began to realize there was a large enough audience in the area to support a concert hall. Plans to build a world class hall began to take shape after Doug Duncan, who had served three terms as Rockville’s mayor, was elected county executive in 1994.
In an interview Wednesday, Duncan recalled the idea of a concert hall took shape as he was thinking of ways to try to get more state funding funneled to the county. He had heard the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was looking for a second home and believed a concert hall at Strathmore could be that home.
After talking to the orchestra’s board chairman, Duncan said he met with Pfanstiehl and others at Strathmore to figure out if building a concert hall would be possible. Duncan said the others expressed doubt about whether the county could secure the money to pay for such a project.
“I said, ‘You know what, you do the planning and I’ll get the money’,” Duncan recalled.
In 1998, the county was able to secure about $47 million in state funding, which it matched with another $47 million in county funding to build a new 1,976-seat music hall and education center, The Music Center at Strathmore, on the mansion property.
Pfanstiehl said securing an additional $1 million each from six corporate partners to fund the music center helped county officials feel more comfortable that the venue would be successful.
“Eliot did a great job of building support for the project,” Duncan said, adding that Pfanstiehl spearheaded the construction process as well.
“It really helped us statewide because of the relationship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra,” Duncan said about the music center, which opened in 2005. He explained that the partnership created a perception that the county was willing to help other parts of the state. “It helped our image and reputation in the state.”
For Pfanstiehl, the opening of the music center changed Strathmore’s interactions with the arts community.
“For the arts, nobody has done anything of this size in Montgomery County,” Pfanstiehl said. “I looked at [Strathmore] like a cute little mansion up on the hill up until the music center” opened.
Since its opening, the music center has hosted thousands of performances of local and nationally and internationally known orchestras, musicians, comedians and other artists. Strathmore also has become a training center for up-and-coming artists with its 10-month artist-in-residence program that enables young musicians and performers the opportunity to perform their music and train with mentor musicians.
The music center is also expanding. In March 2015, the more intimate 240-seat concert venue AMP by Strathmore opened at Pike & Rose. And work is underway to enclose the music center’s Bou Terrace with floor-to-ceiling glass panels to create a 200-seat dining area. The glass panels will be able to open to expose the eatery and event venue to the outdoors. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2020.
Pfanstiehl said part of the reason he’s stayed on at Strathmore is to help plan the new expansion.
“Soon the music center will be finished and I think that seems like a good time to leave,” he said.
Duncan said Pfanstiehl has played an integral role in growing the county’s arts scene since his early efforts in Rockville with the group Street 70.
“A lot of the things we do today date back to projects that he worked on or ideas he had early in his life,” Duncan said. “If you look at the arts scene in Montgomery County, he’s a huge part of that and will be missed.”
Pfanstiehl said his favorite memories at the helm of Strathmore were creating what staff like to call “goosebump moments.”
“For me, some of those are listening to our children’s choir sing or watching collaborations with our wonderful artists in residence,” Pfanstiehl said. “Those just take my breath away.”
Another one of those moments for Pfanstiehl was watching legendary singer Tony Bennett, 90, perform at last year’s spring gala.
“I was praying he was going to make it to our stage without dropping dead,” Pfanstiehl said. “But he knocked our socks off. The last number he sang to the crowd of 2,000 people without a microphone. The place just stopped. I will never forget that night.”
He said he thought about retiring right at that moment.
“It occurred to me because how do you top that?” Pfanstiehl said. “But I had this capital project to do.”