Foundation and museum
Founder Ahmet Ertegun assembled a team that included attorney Suzan Evans, Rolling Stone magazine editor and publisher
Jann S. Wenner, attorney
Allen Grubman, and record executives
Bob Krasnow, and Noreen Woods. The Foundation began inducting artists in 1986, but the Hall of Fame still had no home. The search committee considered several cities, including Philadelphia (home of
Bill Haley and
American Bandstand), Memphis (home of
Sun Studios and
Stax Records), Detroit (home of
Motown Records), Cincinnati (home of
King Records), New York City, and Cleveland.
Cleveland lobbied for the museum, citing that
WJW disc jockey
Alan Freed both coined the term "
rock and roll" and heavily promoted the new genre—and that Cleveland was the location of Freed's
Moondog Coronation Ball, the first major rock and roll concert. In addition, Cleveland cited radio station
WMMS, which played a key role in breaking several major acts in the U.S. during the 1970s and 80s, including artist
David Bowie, who began his first U.S. tour in the city,
Roxy Music, and
Rush among many others.
 Cleveland was also one of the premier tour stops for most rock bands.
Civic leaders in Cleveland pledged $65 million in public money to fund the construction. A petition drive was signed by 600,000 fans favoring Cleveland over Memphis, and Cleveland ranked first in a 1986 USA Today poll asking where the Hall of Fame should be located. On May 5, 1986, the Hall of Fame Foundation chose Cleveland as the permanent home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Sam Phillips of Sun Studios fame and many others were stunned and disappointed that it ended up in Cleveland. "The hall of fame should've been in Memphis, certainly," wrote
Peter Guralnick, author of an acclaimed two-volume Elvis Presley biography.
Cleveland may also have been chosen as the organization's site because the city offered the best financial package. As The Plain Dealer music critic Michael Norman noted, "It was $65 million... Cleveland wanted it here and put up the money." Co-founder Jann Wenner later said, "One of the small sad things is we didn't do it in New York in the first place," but then added, "I am absolutely delighted that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum is in Cleveland."
During early discussions on where to build the Hall of Fame and Museum, the Foundation's board considered the Cuyahoga River. Ultimately, the chosen location was along East Ninth Street in downtown Cleveland by
Lake Erie, east of
At one point in the planning phase when a financing gap existed, planners proposed locating the Rock Hall in the then-vacant May Company Building, but finally decided to commission architect
I. M. Pei to design a new building. Initial CEO Dr.
Larry R. Thompson facilitated I. M. Pei in designs for the site. Pei came up with the idea of a tower with a glass pyramid protruding from it. The museum tower was initially planned to stand 200 ft (61 m) high, but had to be cut down to 162 ft (49 m) due to its proximity to
Burke Lakefront Airport. The building's base is approximately 150,000 square feet (14,000 m2). The groundbreaking ceremony took place on June 7, 1993.
Sam Moore of
Sam and Dave,
Carl Gardner of the
Dave Pirner of
Soul Asylum all appeared at the groundbreaking.
The museum was dedicated on September 1, 1995, with the ribbon being cut by an ensemble that included
Yoko Ono and
Little Richard, among others, before a crowd of more than 10,000 people. The following night an all-star concert was held at the stadium. It featured
Jerry Lee Lewis,
John Mellencamp, and many others.
In addition to the Hall of Fame inductees, the museum documents the entire history of rock and roll, regardless of induction status. Hall of Fame inductees are honored in a special exhibit located in a wing that juts out over Lake Erie.
Since 1986, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has selected new inductees. The formal induction ceremony has been held in New York City 26 times (1986–92, 1994–96, 1998–2008, 2010–11, 2014, 2016, and 2017); twice in Los Angeles (1993 and 2013); and four times in the Hall of Fame's home in Cleveland (1997, 2009, 2012, and 2015). Beginning in 2018, the induction ceremonies will alternate each year between Cleveland and New York.
The 2009 and 2012 induction weeks were made possible by a
public–private partnership between the City of Cleveland, the State of
Ohio, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and local foundations, corporations, civic organizations and individuals. Collectively these entities invested $5.8 million in 2009 and $7.9 million in 2012 to produce a week of events, including free concerts, a gospel celebration, exhibition openings, free admission to the museum, and induction ceremonies filled with both fans and VIPs at Public Hall.
Millions viewed the television broadcast of the Cleveland inductions; tens of thousands traveled to Ohio during induction week to participate in Induction-related events. The economic impact of the 2009 induction week activities was more than $13 million, and it provided an additional $20 million in media exposure for the region. The 2012 induction week yielded similar results.
There are seven levels in the building. On the lower level is the
Ahmet M. Ertegun Exhibition Hall, the museum's main gallery. It includes exhibits on the roots of rock and roll (
rhythm & blues and
bluegrass). It also features exhibits on cities that have had a major impact on rock and roll:
Detroit, London and
San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and
Seattle. There are exhibits about
soul music, the Fifties,
hip hop music, Cleveland's rock and roll legacy, the music of the Midwest, rock and roll radio and dee-jays, and the many protests against rock and roll. This gallery also has exhibits that focus on individual artists, including
the Rolling Stones,
Jimi Hendrix and others. Finally, the Ahmet M. Ertegun Exhibition Hall includes two theaters, one of which features a film about the roots of rock and roll and one that features films on various subjects.
The first floor of the museum is the entrance level. It includes a cafe, a stage that the museum uses for various special performances and events throughout the year, and a section called "Backstage Stories." The second floor includes several interactive kiosks that feature programs on
one-hit wonders and the Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll. This level also includes a gallery with artifact-filled exhibits about
Sam Phillips and the evolution of audio technology.
Visitors enter the Hall of Fame section of the museum on the third floor. This section includes "The Power of Rock Experience," which includes one of
Jonathan Demme's final works, a film shown in the Connor Theater. The film includes musical highlights from some of the Hall's induction ceremonies.
 Visitors exit the Hall of Fame section on the fourth floor. That level features the Foster Theater, a state-of-the-art 3-D theater that is used for special events and programs.
Finally, the top two levels of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame feature large, temporary exhibits. Over the years, numerous exhibits have been installed on these two levels, including exhibits about
Bruce Springsteen, Women Who Rock, and the Rolling Stones.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, showing
in the foreground
I. M. Pei, and structurally engineered by
Leslie E. Robertson Associates, the building rises above the shores of
Lake Erie. It is a combination of bold geometric forms and dynamic cantilevered spaces that are anchored by a 162-foot tower. The tower supports a dual-triangular-shaped glass "tent" that extends (at its base) onto a 65,000-square-foot plaza that provides a main entry facade.
The building houses more than 55,000 square feet of exhibition space, as well as administrative offices, a store, and a café.
"In designing this building," Pei said, "it was my intention to echo the energy of rock and roll. I have consciously used an architectural vocabulary that is bold and new, and I hope the building will become a dramatic landmark for the city of
Cleveland and for fans of
rock and roll around the world."