A French restoration for Academy chandelier

Bringing back a "fairy-like fabric of glitter and light."

Posted: June 19, 2007

It's nearly summer, and the great chandelier that has hung in the Academy of Music for a century and a half is going on a nice, long trip - a cure, really - to the south of France.

Yesterday, it was lowered from its high perch near the golden, richly colored mural on the Academy's ceiling, and workers quickly began to disassemble it. In a few days it will be shipped by sea to the town of Gargas, in Provence, to the Mathieu Lustrerie workshop, where it will be the object of a dramatic restoration.

What will it look like when it's done? Even at this late date, more research is needed before determining exactly what form the chandelier should take before being rehoisted 13 months from now. Renderings of proposals show something that looks little like the bejeweled crown that generations of Philadelphians have come to love.

"The visual change will be extraordinary," said John Trosino, the interior designer leading the project. "The basic structure will be the same, but people will be truly amazed at how delicate and refined it will look. "

Like the fake organ pipes removed from the hall a few years ago, the Academy chandelier that audiences know today is not the one lit on the day the building opened in 1857. The restored version will seem newer in some aspects, with brighter crystal and cleaner brass.

But it will also emerge looking decades older, as historically inaccurate lighting affixed to it in the 1950s will be stripped away. The idea is to get the chandelier as close as possible to its original appearance without reinstalling the 240 gas jets that were its original source of light.

It is part of a larger, $1.2 million project to relight the Academy's ornate architectural details, such as the Mozart medallion over the stage and the mural in the dome.

While the chandelier is away in France, purely functional theatrical track lighting will help to illuminate the auditorium.

Only a few illustrations show the original appearance of the fixture, believed to have been built by the Philadelphia firm of Cornelius & Baker. Trosino says mid-19th-century marketing materials have been a more useful guide.

"They talked about how the crystals were always shimmering," said Trosino, senior interior designer with the Philadelphia office of KlingStubbins. "We can imagine that with all that hot air , it was probably always in motion. People described it as a fairy-like fabric of glitter and light. The intent is to bring back that lightness and airiness and transparency it had when it was installed.

"And it has been the coolest thing ever. "

"One hundred and fifty years of modifications have really obscured its beauty," Joanna McNeil Lewis, the Academy's president, said yesterday. "Originally, it was not a lighting fixture but a decorative fixture, a glittering veil of crystals. Adding down lights and up lights, removing arms, and adding aluminum cups took away from the airy feeling. "

Not only will the 1950s lighting go, but so will the gold ball and spear at the bottom - today seen as an integral part of the chandelier , but, it turns out, inauthentic additions made of aluminum and fiberglass. Gone, too, will be some of the crystals that were added at the century mark.

Why is the chandelier going all the way to France for rehab?

Experience, for one. The Mathieu Lustrerie company has worked on restoration of chandeliers in the Opéra de Monaco, Opéra National de Paris, and the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. It won the contract in a bidding process, said Margaret B. Zminda, chief financial officer of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which owns the Academy even though its daily operations are overseen by the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

Mathieu Lustrerie also developed an electric candle that emulates the look of a gas flame, a bulb that will be used in the new Academy chandelier .

"The glass is coated to give it a warm, glowing candlelight," said Trosino. "It's hard to believe an electric light could do that, but we hoisted the chandelier up to the ceiling with them on, and it's amazing. "

New arms will likely be added to the chandelier to replicate structures thought to be in the original design. The new fixture will appear more ornamental than utilitarian, but new lighting hidden within it will be installed to illuminate the hall.

But better lighting means that it will be easier to see deterioration and other areas that need attention, Academy leaders say.

"The good news is that we're going to improve the lighting. The bad news is that we're going to improve the lighting, which will bring other projects into view," said Zminda.

Among the work contemplated, in various phases of planning, are:

Restoration of the ballroom, including opening the blocked windows to Broad Street, re-creating and installing historically accurate chandeliers that have been removed, and, perhaps, allowing visitors access to the balcony. This project is fully funded and expected to begin next summer.

Restoration of the mural above the dome. It was conserved in recent renovations, said Lewis, but not restored. Cracks are evident. There are no immediate plans for this work.

Repairing or replacing brownstone on the outside of the building.

Installing new seats in the auditorium.

Renovation of restrooms.

All this work is on top of routine maintenance that happens each summer for the brief period the Academy is not being used by the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Kimmel's Broadway series and civic events.

"There will always be ongoing renovation work needed. Daily usage some wear and tear to a 150-year-old building," said Lewis.

The Academy's president would like to show off the building to more tourists, and would like to produce a brief light-and-sound show at the Academy explaining its history and highlighting the interior. In January, at the building's 150th anniversary celebration, such a show was shown to the white-tie crowd, lighting architectural details as narrator Tom Brokaw spoke.

Said Lewis, "We have so much gold that glitters - why not highlight it? "

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Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/peterdobrin.

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