A new hall, just 93 years in the making

Posted: December 09, 2001

The Philadelphia Orchestra decided it had had enough of the Academy of Music. It needed a home built especially for its needs.

A prominent Philadelphia architect was hired to design a 2,800-seat concert hall with a chamber-music room for 500 listeners.

Could the orchestra afford it? Wouldn't it be better to raise money for an endowment? And what was wrong with the Academy of Music, anyway?

The year was 1908.

History does have a way of repeating itself, and looking back at the idea for a new home for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the same themes emerge, playing over and over with only a few variations: concert hall plus chamber-music hall. Chamber-music hall and theater with no concert hall. Just concert hall.

But while planners of the current incarnation of a new home for the Philadelphia Orchestra and other smaller groups faced many of the same issues as their predecessors, they did one thing remarkably different this time: They got it built.

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Today, the names of the Academy of Music and its primary tenant are synonymous. But few remember now that the American Academy of Music was built in 1857, four decades before the orchestra came along, and was for most of its life privately owned.

While the building and ensemble melded in the public's mind soon after 1900, the orchestra began its push for a new concert hall soon after it was founded.

The renderings for orchestra and performing arts halls past look like a catalog of architectural styles - from an early neoclassical design; to the moderne "Temple of Music" pursued by Leopold Stokowski; a Morris Lapidus-esque "Miami '50s" design for an arts center from the 1960s; Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates' postmodern incarnations of the late 1980s and early '90s; and the now-realized chunky piece of polite modernism at Broad and Spruce Streets.

The first public yearnings for a new home, in 1908, came with Carl Pohlig, the orchestra's second music director, on the podium. Several sites were considered, from Rittenhouse Square to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Some even proposed that the Frank Furness-designed Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts building at Broad and Cherry Streets be retrofitted as an orchestra hall.

"Well suited as the Academy of Music is in most respects to the convenience of the audiences, it is not well suited to the convenience of the orchestra itself, which ought to have a building adapted entirely to its use," an editorial writer wrote for the Public Ledger on Dec. 10, 1908.

Plans were drawn up by D. Knickerbacker Boyd, a popular Philadelphia architect who was among the first to advocate the principle of set-backs for tall buildings, for a 2,800-seat orchestra hall and a 500-seat recital hall.

By the 1920s, the charismatic and ambitious Leopold Stokowski was pushing for a new concert hall. The orchestra tried to piggyback onto a new convention center called Victory Hall, proposed for the Parkway in the early 1920s. Later, Arthur Judson, the orchestra's manager, said the Academy was too small, and in order for the orchestra to avert financial difficulties, it needed a hall twice the size, with about 6,000 seats. More seats, more ticket buyers, more money, he reasoned.

Stokowski's concerns were more artistic. He envisioned nothing less than a "Temple of Music," a building designed especially for orchestral music, and it was among the most-developed of the orchestra's many tries at a concert hall.

When the project was announced in 1930, it drew interest from a wide range of architects. Vying for the job were Paul Philippe Cret, designer of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and Detroit Institute of Arts; Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, architects of the Empire State Building; Cass Gilbert, architect of New York's Gothic-skyscraper Woolworth Building; Joseph Urban, who introduced International architecture to America with his New School building in New York; and George Howe and William Lescaze, in a tantalizing partnership with designer Norman Bel Geddes.

Howe and Lescaze were in the midst of designing their icon of International-style architecture at 12 S. 12th St., the PSFS Building.

Stokowski wanted Frank Lloyd Wright. But the Philadelphia Arts Association, the group of orchestra board members pursuing that particular new-hall dream, decided his work "was not suited to our needs." They declined to interview him.

The first renderings to emerge were of a classical-style building by C. Howard Crane, a popular Detroit theater architect, and the arts association circulated plans before the public to drum up interest. Eventually, though, the 1930s version of the Regional Performing Arts Center decided on Ralph T. Walker, a prolific and admired art deco architect from the New York firm of Voorhees Gmelin & Walker, who produced a stunningly sleek moderne design.

The plan, proposed for the site at 19th and the Parkway now occupied by the Four Seasons Hotel, called for a 3,489-seat orchestra hall, a smaller recital theater, a restaurant, a shop, offices and other support spaces - in other words, pretty much the same program as the arts center now nearing completion at Broad and Spruce Streets.

"There are no new architectural arguments in Philadelphia," says Bruce Laverty, curator at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, where the Temple of Music drawings are housed. "It's just the same ideas being argued by different people."

The land was acquired, and architectural plans were developed. The hall would have cost about $5 million (equal to $53 million today), and a contract for a $113,000 pipe organ was signed with the Austin Organ Co.

But substantial opposition formed. After Stokowski announced that the orchestra would be moving from the Academy, Frances A. Wister, president of the Women's Committee of the orchestra, declared him "out of order."

"No hall could be more beautiful than the old Academy," Wister told the Philadelphia Record. The orchestra would stay, she said.

The controversy was to be repeated, nearly word for word, a half-century later between proponents of a new hall and Academy loyalists.

But the economy eventually did Wister's work for her. Stokowski's Temple of Music fell victim to the Depression, and in 1933 the Philadelphia Arts Association was dissolved.

The orchestra thought it had resolved problems of finding a home when it bought the Academy of Music in 1956. Previously privately owned by a group of shareholders, the opera house has been home to the orchestra since its founding in 1900. Two brothers made it known that they were interested in selling their shares in the Academy, and the orchestra acquired a controlling interest in the building in 1950, buying 1,255 of 2,501 of shares outstanding.

In 1955, a multipurpose hall was proposed for the site across South Broad Street from the Academy, where the DoubleTree Hotel now stands. But by 1956, the orchestra bought out the remaining Academy shareholders and became a homeowner.

But what about a home for other groups? By the 1960s, with the Lincoln Center in New York pointing the way to arts as urban renewal, planners developed two separate schemes for arts centers on South Broad Street.

In 1963, the Philadelphia firm of Martin, Stewart, Noble & Class came up with a tail-fin-facade, three-hall complex whose interior used columns like those of Frank Lloyd Wright's S.C. Johnson & Son Co. administration building. Planned for the South Broad Street site of the former Shubert Theater (now the Merriam), it would have been used for opera, ballet and Broadway (the same role the Academy of Music will assume very shortly, once the orchestra exits).

Another plan, by Stonorov (a partner of Philadelphia architect Louis I. Kahn) & Haws from 1967, would have gone where the DoubleTree hotel is today, east across the street from the Academy - for a 2,000-seat auditorium for opera and ballet and an 800-seat theater.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the orchestra was beating the new-hall drums again. It proposed a site now occupied by the Wyndham Philadelphia at Franklin Plaza, and in the 1980s, a spot above the railyards at 30th Street Station. In 1985, the price tag was $60 million.

Eventually, the orchestra and the city began to assemble a patch of land at Broad and Spruce Streets from several small parcels. Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates was chosen in 1987 to design the hall. A separate performing arts center to house other groups was planned for Broad and Pine Streets. That idea eventually faded.

The problem for the Philadelphia Orchestra remained, however, money. Several public-relations faux pas made fund-raising more difficult. It turned down a grant from the city's largest foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, saying the offer was not sweet enough. The orchestra announced at one point that it didn't need old Philadelphia money to build the new hall; it had new Philadelphia money.

Not as much, however, as it apparently thought. Even a $12 million pledge in 1993 from Sidney Kimmel, a new-money clothier who rarely attended the orchestra, was not enough to rekindle enthusiasm. Orchestra leaders predicted it would revive the fund-raising campaign. But by 1995, it was clear that the project remained at a standstill. Dates for breaking ground came and went, as did projected opening nights.

Venturi devised another design, which lined the facade of the building with cutouts of notes from Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata.

At that point, a working group convened by Marjorie O. "Midge" Rendell began to discuss other ways of getting the project done, and by the end of the summer of 1996, the orchestra board decided to give another group a try. It voted in September to turn over the project to a new arts authority that would raise the money and own the building.

Venturi's firm, Mayor Edward G. Rendell said, would have to apply for the job just like any other firm.

A new design by Rafael Violy was revealed in 1998. The New York architect envisioned two buildings encased in a glass dome - an idea recycled from a performing arts center he designed for Baltimore that never got built.

With the new design's cello-shaped concert hall and 150-foot-high glass vault, Rendell and developer Willard G. Rouse 3d hoped it would spur donations. The argument for a new hall was widened, with leaders barely mentioning acoustics, and instead making a case for the arts center as revitalization. The strategy worked. From the time Stephanie W. Naidoff took over the project until her departure in May, four years later, $111 million was raised.

Actually, architect Kahn came up with the idea of an auditorium in the shape of a stringed instrument in his design for the Fine Arts Center in Fort Wayne, Ind. It mimicked a violin.

Violy realized Kahn's thinking in a larger and more explicit way. No new ideas, perhaps. But in Philadelphia, the time for old ideas has come. And now they have been committed, finally, to concrete form.

Peter Dobrin's e-mail address is pdobrin@phillynews.com.

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