What the triumphant return of Philly’s former Metropolitan Opera House means for North Broad Street | Inga Saffron
The history of the elegant opera house tracks the rise, decline, and rise again, of North Philadelphia.
Ever since Oscar Hammerstein erected the Metropolitan Opera House on the wrong side of Broad Street in 1908, it seems like someone has been trying to save the musical colossus from the wrecking ball.
Hammerstein, who spent a small fortune to build what was then the world's largest opera house, thought he was creating a North Philadelphia rival for the Academy of Music. But he gave up just two years later and unloaded the 3,500-seat white elephant on the deep-pocketed financier, Edward Stotesbury. He didn't stick around long, either. The Met passed through a series of owners, who used it for everything from basketball games to church revivals. Even the Pew Foundation, with all its money, tried to restore the Met as a concert hall in 1990 and failed.
The story of the Met reads as a series of heartbreaking and frustrating near-death experiences. When the gold-flecked auditorium wasn't being ravaged by fires and floods, it was being chipped away by neglect brought on by the decline of North Philadelphia in the '70s and '80s. After the Rev. Mark Hatcher picked it up for a mere $250,000 in 1996, Philadelphia building inspectors threatened to immediately tear it down. Hatcher, who had grown up attending an evangelical church at the Met, told me he had to max out his credit cards to pay for emergency repairs. He was able to do just enough work to keep the city's wrecking crew at bay. "People told me I was going out of my mind."
It is a lucky thing for Philadelphia that Hatcher ignored them and his credit held up. Today, Hammerstein's folly is not merely standing, it has been transformed into a glowing rock-and-roll palace by developer Eric Blumenfeld. In less than three weeks, the theater will make its triumphant return as the Met Philadelphia when Bob Dylan sanctifies the concert hall for Live Nation. It will also remain a home for the sacred along with the profane: Hatcher's Holy Ghost Headquarters gets to hold its first revival service in the same space three days later and will use the building on Sundays.
Who would have thought that the behemoth of North Broad would outlast so many of Philadelphia's more centrally located auditoriums?
This city has been notoriously unkind to its historic theaters. Chestnut Street's remarkable, art deco Boyd movie house was sacrificed a few years ago by the Historical Commission for a developer's apartment tower. The Royal has been reduced to a two-dimensional cut-out. The Uptown is still awaiting a savior. The Aldine has been forced into service as a drugstore. So many dazzling theaters are now just names in history books, their opulence remembered by a dwindling few.
What none of them had, it seems, was the right mix of money, timing, and exceedingly stubborn champions. The Met may have looked like hell on the outside all these years, but it remained a functioning church thanks to Hatcher's determination. And, long before others recognized North Broad Street's potential, Blumenfeld stepped in, becoming Hatcher's partner and the Met's majority owner in 2013.
Although you sometimes want to shield your eyes from the details, Blumenfeld's commitment to North Broad is now bearing fruit. Starting with an apartment building a decade ago at Lofts 640 (the one with the Osteria restaurant), he has steadily moved north, rescuing the seemingly hopeless Divine Lorraine last year and the Studebaker showroom this spring.
For a long time it looked like the Met would be his comeuppance. Hatcher even sued Blumenfeld in 2015 for failure to deliver on his promised investment. That was right before he snagged Live Nation as a tenant — the very same Live Nation that betrayed the Boyd in 2006, paving the way for its demolition. Why did the Met project succeed when the Boyd didn't?
"I guess I'm better at dreaming," Blumenfeld suggested.
He had help, of course: financing from Procida investment fund, which also provided the money for the Divine Lorraine; federal tax credits; oversight from the state and local historic commissions; and the architectural expertise of Sam Olshin, of AOS Architects.
Just 18 months ago, the grand auditorium built by Hammerstein (the grandfather of the Broadway lyricist) and designed by William H. McElfatrick was barely recognizable as an opera house. Water damage had left the gently arched ceiling so tattered, it looked as if a swarm of moths had gorged themselves on an old sweater. The wrecked interior made a perfect set for Terry Gilliam's 1995 post-apocalyptic film 12 Monkeys, with Bruce Willis. Many people who passed the semi-boarded up facade simply assumed the opera house was abandoned.
When Blumenfeld and Olshin gave me an early tour last week of the $60 million renovation and fit-out, I couldn't believe my eyes. The ornate proscenium arch that frames the stage and the ceiling have been completely rebuilt with vines and rosettes, including many handmade with plaster.
Perhaps the population of cherubs and classical gods dancing across the rippling balcony seats isn't quite as dense as it was in 1908. But enough gold-flecked ornament has been re-created that no one will ever confuse the old opera house with an ordinary roadhouse. Blumenfeld even had the unusual, long-necked swans recast and reinstalled on the balcony columns. Olshin had hoped to preserve the old plaster walls, but Live Nation became concerned that a booming bass would cause the material to crumble.
Many Live Nation venues simply burrow into half-ruined theaters — the Tower, the Queen, the TLA — and make their decay part of the charm. That is not the case with the Met. It is now truly fit for an opera, and the renovation has allowed it to reclaim its title as the largest stage in Philadelphia. With 3,100 seats, it holds more people than the Academy. You'll know that you're in a popular music hall, though, because there are 25 bars distributed throughout the building.
Best of all, the neoclassical exterior has been impressively restored, with the original arched arcades, pilasters, and dentil moldings to enliven the long Broad Street facade. It won't be as glamorous as Hammerstein's original, which featured a lacy iron canopy over the entrance, but Blumenfeld plans a restaurant facing the street. It will be called "Oscars," of course. A neon blade sign, reminiscent of one that existed in the 1930s, will go up at the Poplar Street corner.
Gazing out from the gleaming white exterior toward the rental car place across the street and the drive-in Dunkin' Donuts, it's hard to imagine that Broad Street was ever allowed to fall so low. A century after it was built, the Met is now evidence of what North Broad Street can, and should, be.