One of Philadelphia's most majestic performance spaces — the long-lost Metropolitan Opera House on North Broad Street — is set to come back to life.
Developer Eric Blumenfeld, who is also behind the refurbished Divine Lorraine Hotel nearby, has entered into an agreement with concert promoter Live Nation to revive the historic venue that takes up a full city block at Broad and Poplar Streets, at a cost of $45 million. It's to open by the end of 2018.
"It's exciting because it's a world-class opera house," said Geoff Gordon, regional president of Live Nation, the internationally dominant promoter, which has a lease and operating deal with Blumenfeld, of EB Realty Group. The plan is to again turn the theater, built by impresario Oscar Hammerstein I in 1908, into a busy venue.
This is the first time Live Nation has spoken publicly about the project, first reported at a hearing for the Philadelphia Historical Commission's architectural committee in March.
"It's a really progressive move in the Francisville neighborhood," Gordon said of the revival of the Met, which has been unused except for rare pop-up shows since the 1980s. "The marquee is literally going to light up that whole area and make it pop. Any time you get the chance to do shows at a venue called the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House — well, if I don't take that opportunity, maybe I should quit. Oscar Hammerstein. That's enough for me, I guess."
The Met served as an opera and movie house in its first three decades, before a sports promoter purchased it and hosted boxing and wrestling matches, and the circus. Full-court basketball games took place on the enormous stage, where backboards still hang.
The building's grandeur is immediately apparent to visitors, even in the current state of disrepair. In November, Jazz Lives Philadelphia hosted an event featuring Ted Nash of the Lincoln Center Orchestra. Listeners shivered and gazed up at the building's ornate balconies and 110-foot ceiling.
When it opens, the Met will present a nightlife alternative along the reviving North Philadelphia corridor that includes the Divine Lorraine as well as the jazz club South and Vetri brew pub Alla Spina.
"It's a very, very big deal for the future of North Broad Street," said Blumenfeld, who owns the Met along with the Rev. Mark Hatcher of the Holy Ghost Church, the building's most recent inhabitant. The goal is to make the corridor above Spring Garden "a walking street," Blumenfeld says. "Our mission is about connecting dots."
The Met will add to a growing number of theater-size venues in Philadelphia. Live Nation opened the 2,400-capacity Fillmore Philadelphia in Fishtown in 2015, and also operates the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, which holds 3,000.
On South Broad Street, Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center has a capacity of 2,500, as does the Academy of Music, the opera house that the Met was built to compete with. Then there's the Electric Factory, which also can fit 2,500 to 3,000 and is under the control of Live Nation competitor AEG Live.
But Gordon and Blumenfeld say the introduction of the Met won't mean everyone has to fight over a finite-size pie.
"For us, it's complementary to all those venues," said Gordon, who says the building will be open to other presenters as well as Live Nation. A broad range of acts could play, with a typical theater schedule of one of two shows a week. Expect R&B and soul stars like Jill Scott and Mary J. Blige, and comedians such as Louis C.K. or hometown hero Kevin Hart, with some doing multi-night runs. There will be electronic dance acts and jammy rock bands. Bob Weir — the officiate at Gordon's wedding to his wife, Sayeeda, between sets at a Weir show at the Tower in October — and other Grateful Dead members are investors.
"When I first moved here 20 years ago, everybody went to eat at Bookbinders," said Gordon, who previously booked shows in the Washington area. "There were no real restaurants, right? Then a guy named Stephen Starr decided to open Buddakan and all these other restaurants. And it was, 'Can the city handle it?' Well, look at what the city's handling right now. The NFL draft and the Penn Relays in the same week. Made in America. How many new jobs will there be when the new Comcast tower goes up, 2,000? Those people are going to be looking for things to do." Philadelphia, he says, "couldn't be hotter."
The venue, which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972, will hold up to 3,500, but can be arranged in more intimate configurations, and cater to fixed seating or general-admission audiences. Construction will begin in earnest in June and is expected to be completed in time to open by the end of 2018. Blumenfeld expects the project to provide 200 to 300 construction jobs, and Live Nation estimates about that number of full- and part-time jobs once the venue is up and running.
Like the Divine Lorraine, the Met is "a glorious old building that had been neglected, that anyone with any intelligence would tell you to tear down," said Blumenfeld, who has been working on the project since 2012. "It fit the mold of everything that challenges me in my life. I saw it right away."
Blumenfeld gushes about the many smaller, intimate rooms within the Met and hopes to open a roof deck with panoramic views. He boasts of the excellence of the building's "crazy acoustics"; Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra recorded several albums in the opera house. The developer said other would-be partners viewed the concert market "as potentially saturated. But Geoff never saw it that way. It's a great market and it still has legs, and it has areas that are still untapped."
The developer is not concerned about the 110,000-square-foot space's struggling to find a niche. "No, I'm not worried," he said. "We really have our arms around it. We've taken the time to study the project. I'm ready to rock and roll."