Change comes incrementally to the Academy of Music, as it must to any building vital and beloved at nearly 156 years old. This summer, while renovations are planned, they are modest compared with those of recent years.
And, frankly, the Academy could probably use a chance to catch its breath after events of the last few years: millions in restorations to the ballroom and main chandelier; the death of Leonore Annenberg, its major benefactor; and that unfortunate business of having to declare bankruptcy even though its own finances were fine, when its owner, the Philadelphia Orchestra, filed for Chapter 11.
After the national touring company production of Wicked closes Aug. 4, workers will begin demolishing the Academy's front steps. New cast stone slabs will be put into place, topped by only half the number of current handrails (five, not 10).
Inside, plaster on the parquet level will be repaired. A new lounge with a video screen and audio will be created in the lower level, to accommodate latecomers waiting for a break to allow them entrance to ballet, opera, or show. The entire HVAC system must be replaced, a several-million-dollar job, but in the meantime a new digital control system will be installed to help the existing system run more efficiently.
The likely price tag for this round of work is $600,000 to $800,000, says Matthew Loden, the orchestra's executive vice president and the Academy's chief restoration fund officer. Construction is expected to run through September.
The current steps are not the original brownstone ones from 1857 but probably a third-generation replacement from the late 1940s, said John Trosino, the KlingStubbins designer who has shepherded many recent Academy projects. The new steps will not replicate the originals in either proportions or materials.
Originally, the doors opening into the vestibule were wooden bifolds that were folded open when patrons entered, averting the need to open a door and at once step up or down. The newer glass and metal doors swing out, requiring that the current stair configuration with its deeper top level be preserved.
"We have a reasonable amount of photography over a series of years, so we talked about the dilemma of re-creating the [original] composition of treads and risers relative to the way in which you exit the building today," he said.
Safety won out: The current proportions will be replicated, and five new handrails will descend from each of the five doors (originally there were no rails), allowing crowds to disperse more smoothly - those needing handrails moving at the center, those not needing them flowing freely instead of within chutes.
"I know it sounds like nothing, going from 10 to five, but it really will make a big difference visually," Trosino said. "It will appear much lighter."
More profound change is happening behind the scenes. Joanna Lewis, president of the Academy of Music since 2007, resigned from the post (also giving up the titles of chairman and CEO) as of May 10. Philadelphia Orchestra board chairman Richard B. Worley is interim leader while a successor is being sought.
Lewis brought a younger profile to the volunteer job, changing the format of the Academy Anniversary event with popular musicians such as Billy Joel and Sting, and engaging a young-friends group to build support beyond the traditional old guard.
Lewis wants more family time as a daughter finishes her last year of high school. "My feeling is I'll take a year off, and perhaps come back," not as president, but in some capacity, she said. "I care so much about the building, and I want to be there for the capital projects."
Whoever follows Lewis has a long list of renovations to prioritize and pay for by means of the annual Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball and other fund-raising. The cupola atop the building, barely visible from the street, at least needs repainting, and possibly more. The corbeled cornice along the top of the building is likely coated with lead-laced paint, and needs a close inspection to determine what kind of work it requires. The auditorium's ceiling mural is punctured by holes in the plaster and cries out for full restoration. Seating needs to be replaced.
It seems that the brownstone relief at the apex of the facade that says 1857 American Academy of Music is not original. An early photo shows a more complex brick pattern enclosing a different relief, perhaps of a lyre. Should it be restored someday?
The building's needs have been cataloged by GWWO Inc./Architects, another of Lewis' accomplishments. The three-inch-thick report records current conditions and proposes solutions over several years. The orchestra, which owns the Academy, also juggles the needs of the Kimmel Center (which manages it) and the resident companies Pennsylvania Ballet and Opera Philadelphia. What began two decades ago as a discreet renovation has evolved into a perpetual campaign of projects.
"The list is long," Trosino said.