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Academy of Music is replacing its lumpy old seats — and, no, you’re not getting cup holders

Plans are being developed for even more ambitious renovations to the 161-year-old Academy of Music.

Old seats sit in boxes as they are removed from the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, PA on July 10, 2018.
Old seats sit in boxes as they are removed from the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, PA on July 10, 2018.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

It's summer at the Academy of Music. Carmen long ago sang the habanera and drew her last breath, Aladdin has rolled up his magic carpet until next time. And construction workers have arrived at Broad and Locust Streets.

Almost every summer, the city's glittery, 161-year-old home to ballet, Broadway, and opera goes dark for a few weeks for restoration work. This summer and next, the building's stewards will undertake an unusually hefty $4 million in upgrades and repairs, with even more ambitious work to come later, thanks to a new plan approved by the Academy board this week. 

Much of the work in the next few weeks involves aspects of the building that might never be noticed — unless something goes wrong. A new cooling tower will be hoisted into place, ensuring the future of air-conditioned comfort, and electrical innards that date from between 60 and 90 years ago will be replaced, said Mario Mestichelli, vice president and CFO of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which owns the Academy.

But one of the fruits of this summer's labor will be immediately noticeable when audiences return this fall. All of the seats in the theater are being replaced or refurbished — about 60 percent this summer, 40 percent next — to make them more comfortable.

"I remember the day I walked in the door 11 years ago, and the opera and the ballet said the seats are a disaster," said Anne Ewers, president and CEO of the Kimmel Center, which manages the building.

Many patrons agreed. When the center undertook a 2015 audience survey to gauge satisfaction, more than 60 percent of respondents complained about the seats.

And so, old seats are being removed this week and new ones, being fabricated by Ducharme Seating in the Montréal borough of Saint-Leonard, will arrive shortly. The old ones were installed in the mid-1990s and had become lumpy, Kimmel officials said. The new models are of a slightly larger width — 18 to 22 inches, as opposed to 16¾ to 20 inches  — but will use velvet of the same deep-red color as the old ones.

Patrons will have a bit more leg room. "Where possible, we looked at adding a couple of inches in between rows," said architect John H. Cluver, partner at the Philadelphia firm Voith & Mactavish Architects. "On the whole, we tried to get rid of the most egregious of the narrow seats."

Patrons in wheelchairs may also find the Academy to be more hospitable. Spots for wheelchairs will be increased to 21 from 16, and there will be a broader range of locations from which to choose, said Ross S. Richards, the Kimmel's senior vice president of facilities and operations. "We've also found ways for wheelchair patrons and their companions to fit shoulder to shoulder, which is not something they currently can do," he said.

Sorry, no cup holders

And then there is the cup-holder question. The Kimmel had considered installing cup holders as part of the new-seating project, a feature which, presumably, would have encouraged beverage consumption — not to mention boosted concession sales figures — at Broadway shows.

But after much discussion, that aspect of the new seat design was nixed. Cup holders would have cost more money, a Kimmel spokeswoman said, and since Opera Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Ballet were not interested in having cup holders (they don't allow drinks in performances), the orchestra and Kimmel decided to apply that money to other aspects of the project.

Juggling the desires of the Academy's various constituents can get tricky. The Academy is overseen by a matrix that includes its owner, the orchestra; the Kimmel, which manages it and makes a great deal of revenue by presenting Broadway there; Opera Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Ballet, which perform there often as official resident companies; and the Academy board and donors, who have funded tens of millions of dollars in upgrades and renovations over the past quarter-century.

Of the new seat design, Cluver says: "I think it's a classic look. The combination of the wood and the velvet, with the wood back and wood seat, is a very timeless feel."

The seating configuration will change, bringing the total number of seats  down from 2,849 to 2,744, a loss of 105, with an unknown number to be lost next summer.

The seating project, which also involves new railing and flooring in places, comes to $3 million — all but $350,000 of which is raised. The other $1 million in work this summer and next is being covered with donations, income from the Academy endowment, and proceeds from the annual Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball.

The seating project will add a totally new element to the Academy. Each row will end in the visual flourish of an end panel of cast-aluminum with ornaments meant to resonate with meaning: the Academy of Music logo, oak leaves to signify the building's enduring presence, and a reed flute and laurel design symbolic of achievement in the arts.

The goal was to find motifs from the Academy "and build them in a panel that would seem to have always been there," said Ducharme president Éric Rocheleau.

"The company has done a stunning job," said Ewers of the design of the end-panels.

The venue's loose seats — about 300 of them in places like the Academy boxes — will be refurbished and made lighter by removing some wood. Interior railings will be refurbished and stairs rebuilt in places for easier navigation. In the amphitheater, the Academy's highest perch, 529 seats will be replaced, but the long, antique, pew-like wood backs of seating rows will be kept.

As for the loss of 105 seats, Pennsylvania Ballet marketing manager Jonathan Stiles said the company isn't worried. "There are some shows that are pretty full and they'll be more full now," he said. "In a house that big, that's a fairly small percentage."

Opera Philadelphia general director and president David B. Devan pointed out that the company's move to a festival format has been successful in attracting out-of-town patrons as well as new patrons in Philadelphia, "and we want them to come back. And if they are not comfortable, we cannot make being a destination opera company work.

"We are thrilled that there are new seats going in."