The Rise, Fall, & Revival Of North Broad’s Opera Palace

 

18 years ago the mighty Metropolitan Opera House was almost demolished after the City deemed it unfit for occupancy. Today it is a symbol of renewal on North Broad Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Despite its sizeable dimensions, the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House has for many years remained remarkably discreet on North Broad Street, overshadowed by its more obtrusive commercial neighbors. When its doors closed to the public in the 1950s, a fascinating history was sealed, for few now know the Met’s cultural significance or can recall the illustrious pageant of artistic performances once presented on its stage. That legacy augurs to continue this year, when, for the first time in nearly 80 years, the Met will reopen its doors as a public venue for the performing arts. In early 2018, real estate developer Eric Blumenfeld, owner and rescuer of the Divine Lorraine, announced that he had not only secured $56 million to revitalize the theater, but also acquired a prominent tenant: the presenter Live Nation. The project heralds a new chapter in the building’s history, bringing the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House once again into the public eye.

Current discourse bears an uncanny resemblance to that which surrounded the theater’s construction in 1908. Not long ago, Live Nation’s regional president Geoff Gordon averred that “the reincarnated Metropolitan Opera House [will] become one of the great venues in the world.” His statement mirrors the rhetoric of the theater’s original visionary, Oscar Hammerstein I, who repeatedly promised to build Philadelphia “one of the great opera houses of the world,” and, once he completed it, claimed to have delivered it. That not one, but two stakeholders, past and present, have publicly issued exhilarating statements about the Met’s global significance speaks to the intoxicating romance that has always surrounded the theater. Newspapers in 1908 fervidly predicted a “great wave in [urban] development” to follow the theater’s construction, an optimistic speculation that remains today. One hopes, and suspects, that the reincarnated Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House has a more certain future in the 21st century than it did in the 20th, for what followed 1908 was a series of disappointing vicissitudes in the fortunes of the Metropolitan Opera’s visionaries, men who found themselves in possession of a theater built on a romantic passion for art; not the shrewd speculation of a sustainable enterprise.

The Philadelphia Opera House received national attention when it opened in 1908. The neoclassical façade and white brick exterior contrasted mightily with the red brick and brownstone houses that neighbored it on North Broad and Poplar Streets. | Image courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

This romanticism began with Oscar Hammerstein I, the celebrity-impresario who possessed a passion for music that drove him to the giddy heights of operatic success in the early 20th century. A German immigrant who arrived penniless in America in 1864, Hammerstein began his education at the Music Conservatory of Berlin with ambitions to become a composer of ballet and operetta. He was unsuccessful in that regard, but had better professional luck in America, where his trajectory in business followed the familiar pattern of the self-made man. Hammerstein was no Andrew Carnegie, but he did climb the social ladder through a combination of ingenuity, ambition, and will, working his way from sweeping floors in a cigar factory to management. He ultimately made a fortune inventing devices to efficiently manufacture cigars. After a brief career in real estate investment, Hammerstein followed his passion for music by building theaters with the architects John B. and William McElfatrick, at which point he refashioned himself as a dynamic impresario. This caused great strife amongst his immediate family. His dalliances with opera singers caused his wife, Malvina Jacobi, especial misery. She could not have felt more differently from her husband. He saw opera houses as temples of music. She merely called them “the Devil’s synagogue.”

Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company, formed in 1906, quickly rivaled the more established Metropolitan Opera Company of New York. Confident in his success and embracing the capitalist spirit of the age, Hammerstein looked to expand his operatic enterprise to other cities along the East Coast. An opportunity presented itself in 1908, when, at the invitation of one of Philadelphia’s wealthy opera enthusiasts, Hammerstein brought the Manhattan Opera Company to Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. The performances were favorably enough received to convince Hammerstein that a permanent venue in Philadelphia would be a profitable business endeavor. Following the curtain call of Charpentier’s Louise, Hammerstein trotted across the stage decked in his standard evening attire of white tie and tails, the aura of smoke from a recently extinguished cigar encircling his crown, to announce his plans to an audience of potential subscribers: “I will open my Philadelphia Opera House here on the evening of November 13,” he said, “You want me, and I’ll come to you.” From the enthusiastic applause that followed, Philadelphia appeared pleased with the prospect.

After the Metropolitan Opera Company returned to the Academy of Music for its regular Tuesday evening performances in 1918, the theater was sold and became a venue for popular entertainment. This photo, dating from 1924, captures the billboards and awning that announce the departure from Hammerstein’s original intentions. | Image courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

This announcement, like many of Hammerstein’s curtain speeches, was a carefully calculated public relations tactic, a show-within-a-show. Months before his company’s performances at the Academy, Hammerstein purchased property at 858 North Broad Street with the intention of erecting a theater on the site of a mansion belonging to the wealthy industrialist Charles J. Harrah. The neighborhood was placid, dotted with the impressive Gilded Age homes of Philadelphia’s upper middle class. Hammerstein’s choice of location was curious even for its time and it would threaten the building’s sustainability for years. Many Philadelphians viewed the intersection of Poplar and Broad as too remote from Center City–a “howling wilderness,” in the words of music chronicler John Curtis. Others who knew society’s manners questioned if Hammerstein hadn’t erred in failing to learn the customs of a subscriber base that rarely traveled north of Market Street. Hammerstein must have assumed that society would travel north to hear grand opera and that the neighborhood was prosperous enough to yield a source of potential subscribers beyond Philadelphia’s old-money patricians.

Work went quickly in the spring and summer of 1908. Hammerstein enlisted his usual team to oversee the theater’s construction. William McElfatrick prepared the architectural plans and Arthur Hammerstein, his son, supervised the project. Looking at the formidable house today, one wonders how it was possibly erected in nine months. And the timeline was indeed extremely tight. Workmen only removed the ladders and brushes hours before the first performance on November 17 1908. It is said that the paint of the lobby’s columns was not yet dry when the first violinist’s bow touched the string for the overture of Carmen.

A view of the auditorium from center stage taken in 1942. The amphitheater-style seating featured a unique double balcony extending to the rear of the auditorium. | Image courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

By all accounts, the opera house was both an architectural and acoustic marvel. In fact, recording engineers in the 1970s were so impressed with the sound of the auditorium that they used the Met to record several albums of the Philadelphia Orchestra. (In a recording of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, one can hear an astonishing six-second decay at the conclusion of the first movement.) McElfatrick designed an amphitheater-style layout, reminiscent of Wagner’s theater at Bayreuth, with an original seating capacity of approximately 4,000, constructed to avoid the irksome pillars that define the Academy of Music and block the view of patrons sitting above the boxes. In terms of décor, historians only have written descriptions and illustrations found in newspapers such as The North American to reconstruct the Met’s interior. Swiftly executed approximations these may be, they capture something of the glittering customs of a period that held fast to an ever-fading 19th century. Examining them, readers perceive the theater’s lavish Louis XVI-style interior: columns ornamented with gold leaf, cherub, and lyre. Carpets and curtains of coral and rouge. Ceilings bearing classical motifs and chandeliers. And swirling about these interiors are the jubilant men and women adorned in evening dress. It is easy for the imagination to take flight with these images; and when we lose ourselves in them, we apprehend something of the past by joining the legions of original readers, who, like us, could only access this dreamy world through the figures sketched on paper. That season we might have seen Cleofanti Campanini conduct Carmen or heard Mary Garden in the controversial premiere of Richard Strauss’s Salomé. After a performance, we might have concluded our evening by dining on the rooftop of the nearby Lorraine Hotel with other patrons. Yes, this visually lavish house on Broad and Poplar Streets must have indeed rivaled many of Europe’s finest theaters.

Leopold Stokowski on the stage of the Metropolitan House in 1931. The nine-foot-tall puppets were designed by Robert Edmond Jones for the American premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. | Image courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Despite Hammerstein’s formidable outward artistic success, the sustainability of his opera house remained in question. Philadelphia society reacted coolly to his project in the hot summer of 1908 and only gradually purchased the subscriptions Hammerstein needed to support his investment. This fraught relationship with Philadelphia cast a shadow on opening night. At the curtain call of the second act of Carmen, Hammerstein implored audiences to support his company and effectively foretold the fate of the opera house, saying, “While I am gratified at your applause, I cannot help harboring a feeling of sadness when I wonder whether this house will remain the home of grant opera for years to come. It is for you to decide and it is for you to make it the greatest opera house of the world. I have done my part. I have not come here as a shopkeeper or a producer of operas, wholesale or retail. I have come to ask your aid in promoting great music.” It is difficult to determine the extent to which Hammerstein’s appearance was mere performance and whether his melodramatic tone was intended to solicit further support or apprise audiences of legitimate challenges. He certainly faced perilous financial difficulties, for the inordinate costs of running multiple opera houses and theatrical tours from Washington, D.C. to Canada were unsustainable.

A promoter of great music, not a producer of great operas. This statement captures the self-perception that functioned as Hammerstein’s Achilles’ heel. His reverential passion for art music blinded him to the realities of running a commercial enterprise, driving choices in programming that promoted art to the exclusion of all forms of public entertainment. Hammerstein often spoke of opera in religious terms. “Next to the church stands grand opera as a moral force,” his press representative, Edmund Bamberger, once said, echoing Hammerstein’s views. The comparison may strike modern ears as pretentious, but it was in fact commonplace. Newspapers referred to Hammerstein’s theater as a “temple” of grand opera in their coverage, and Hammerstein himself insisted that his theater would be kept “sacred to grand opera.” No other touring companies were booked outside of the Philadelphia Opera Company’s regular season. The rest of the year the theater remained essentially closed. Hammerstein would need considerable financial support from the Philadelphia elite if he were to maintain an exclusive season of grand opera. Alas, this was not to be.

Hammerstein’s precarious finances became public knowledge in 1909. Swiftly, the Metropolitan Opera Company and its president Otto Kahn offered to buy Hammerstein out, demanding all operatic interests for the total price of 1.25 million dollars. In their proposal—which Hammerstein reluctantly accepted—he was forbidden to produce opera in New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia for a stipulated period of 10 years. As for the Philadelphia Opera House, the Met demanded the deed, seizing all costumes and sets belonging to Hammerstein’s companies. Defeated and humiliated, Hammerstein moved to Paris, leaving his son to settle his affairs in the United States. He would never produce opera in America again, dying from kidney failure and paralysis in 1919, only a few short months before his 10-year probation ended.

Workmen in 1939 extend the stage to transform the auditorium into a basketball court. | Image courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

After Hammerstein departed for France, ownership of the Philadelphia Opera House transferred to Edward T. Stotesbury, the Philadelphian financier who had taken out a $400,000 mortgage on the house to assist Hammerstein in 1909. After Stotesbury acquired the opera house he joined the board of the Metropolitan Opera Company and the theater assumed its new, more familiar, name as the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House. For nearly 10 years, this was the Met’s local residence, performing regular Tuesday evening performances alongside other touring groups. While these concerts remained relatively popular, Stotesbury carried the same financial burden suffered by Hammerstein—at one time quoting his losses at approximately $20,000 annually. He endured the costs of the theater for nearly a decade, but ultimately sold the house at auction in 1920. The Metropolitan Opera last performed there on April 20, 1918—a production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin—and subsequently returned to the Academy of Music, where they would perform regularly until 1961.

In subsequent decades, the Metropolitan Opera House fell into the hands of successive owners whose business interests shaped its identity and profile. Frederick G. Nixon-Nirdlinger, one of the nation’s most prominent theater and vaudeville producers, purchased the house in 1920. He sold the house eight years later to the Stanley Company, which transformed an opulent opera house into a movie theater, installing an organ and rebranding the theater it as “The Met.” This lasted only from September to February 1929, at which point the theater attracted the Philadelphia Orchestra. The conductor, Leopold Stokowski, had been searching for a venue to accommodate productions requiring large orchestral forces, space has always been an issue at the Academy of Music. Consequently, the Met became the venue for several important American premieres in the early 1930s: the full ballet of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, and Arnold Schoenberg’s Die gluckliche hand. These performances elevated the historical significance of the opera house and reintroduced it as a prominent node in the city’s musical network. Unfortunately, financial realities in a Depression-era economy forced the Orchestra to pare down its productions, and it ceased using the Met as a venue after 1932. The auditorium continued to be rented out for performances in the remaining decade, but these never brought the theater to the national eye as it did with Stokowski and Hammerstein. Concert promoters had great difficulty navigating the waters when few Americans could attend anything other than mass produced forms of entertainment. Finally, in 1939, the Met was converted into a venue for athletic events. A remarkable picture in the Temple University Urban Archives depicts construction workers extending the stage of the Met across the orchestra pit to convert the auditorium into a basketball court. After a fire in 1948, the Met became a school for auto mechanics.

The grand auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera House in 2012. | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

In a curious twist of fate that bridged Hammerstein’s religiosity with the Christian faith, the Met was purchased in 1954 by the Evangelical pastor Thea Jones, who converted it into the church from which he would preach and broadcast until his death in 1992. Over time, the Met began to fall into disrepair. When the city declared it unfit for occupancy in the early 2000s, the active congregation, known as “Holy Ghost Headquarters,” raised enough funds to save the theater from demolition in the early 2000s. As of 2008, the refurbished auditorium appeared convincingly as a plain sanctuary, but it was a space that persistently reminded one of its storied past. Auditorium seats faced a stage beautified with floral arrangements, occupied with seating for church elders and instruments for worship: a drum kit, a bass guitar, and an organ. The box seats were lined with simple plaster. Above the congregation, a blue tarp masked the cavernous ceiling of the remaining auditorium, which, seen from the balcony, chillingly reminded one of the ghostly Titanic 12,000 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. There were indeed, one felt, spirits in that sanctuary.

Today at the intersection of Broad and Poplar, the elaborate scaffolding and noise of construction call greater attention to the Metropolitan Opera House. It is a promising picture, one that serves as a model for current developers who might revitalize, not demolish, the past. What the Kimmel Center did for South Broad, the Met may do for North Broad and usher in the wave of commercial and residential development that newspapers once so confidently predicted in 1908. Modern developers exude great confidence in the theater’s ability to attract sufficient audiences to sustain the life of this venue. Let us hope that the transformation of North Broad Street responsibly continues, and by so doing, promotes the Met’s integration into the life of the city once again.

About the author

Robert McClung teaches English literature at Bodine High School for International Affairs. Trained in both English and historical musicology, his lectures and written work have appeared at Seattle Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and Seattle University. He lives in Philadelphia.



7 Comments


  1. Great article. I need to see more of this place.

  2. Harry Kyriakodis

    Let us hope that the Met is aptly restored and revived. It was great visiting the place about 10 years ago and seeing all the furnishings all covered up. What a place to see!

  3. Nice piece, but I believe the captions for the first two images need to be switched.

  4. Correction: 2nd and 3rd images

  5. What a huge irony it is for Live Nation to be tooting the horn for this preservation when they destroyed the Boyd Theater. Granted, with many more seats, this will be a more-profitable venue. But they don’t deserve it. And I don’t see how they will produce any cultural events. One can probably only dream of hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra here. It should have an orchestra series with touring orchestras, an opera and oratorio series and recitals by famous singers. It should be the premier, independent presenter of the arts, not affiliated with Avenue of the Arts. And is there a space in the building for a recital hall with 500 seats or less?

  6. A very important development for the North Philadelphia – North Broad renaissance. Need to see more like it. The city must support North Broad like never before and provide services and facilities that are conducive to strong communities east and west of Broad Street. This means good schools, libraries, recreation, shopping etc. With the Divine Lorraine, Met and Temple University developments only in their first stages there is much to look forward to. Good article. Thanks

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