Philadelphia's Kimmel Center sets stage for major renovation

Posted: April 29, 2011

The Kimmel Center's rooftop garden will be crowned with a new glassy box.

At the corner of Broad and Spruce Streets, the little-loved black granite cube has been marked for demolition.

An open-air restaurant with windows opening onto Spruce is on the way - plus more bathrooms and, possibly, an inventive answer to those escalators patrons have been asking for.

A vast menu of improvements has been assembled into a major renovation of the Kimmel - shared this week with The Inquirer - just a decade after Philadelphia's $275 million answer to Lincoln Center opened its doors.

Funding isn't nailed down, so the extent to which the master plan actually gets done remains to be seen, but the Kimmel board's approval is at least an affirmation of a key part of the center's original ambition: to be a major source of urban frisson by extending offerings well beyond performance times.

"In the end, you've got to have this place vibrantly working 18 hours out of the day," said James Timberlake, principal of KieranTimberlake, the Philadelphia architecture firm engaged for most of the undertaking.

Kimmel president Anne Ewers said the master plan "takes what the mission and vision of the Kimmel Center was when it opened and now allows that to really become a reality. From my perspective, they have answered every problem this building has. I think it's extraordinary. You ask, my gosh, why wasn't this done right the first time around?"

No one will put a number to the project - it hasn't been priced out, Kimmel leaders say - though clearly the price tag is well into the tens of millions of dollars.

In an interview this week, architects volunteered that the renovations do not imply failure of the original design, by New York's Rafael Viñoly Architects, which lost some details that ended up being value-engineered out.

"It's taken 10 years to sort out how Philadelphia wants to use that space," said Timberlake. "There's a lot to love about this building. Yet the building hasn't served its constituents in a way it needs to serve them."

Many agree. The Kimmel has drawn complaints for being figuratively and literally cold, acoustically wanting, lacking in amenities, expensive to its resident companies, inhospitable with operating policies that discourage visitation - and, to the old guard, for not being the Academy of Music.

About $14 million in work is imminent. A $7 million state grant has been matched by an equal amount in philanthropy to remake Hamilton Garden, atop the Perelman Theater. Trees will be removed, and glass walls will rise around the perimeter, topped with a louvered roof that can be opened or closed. New structures will be erected in Verizon Hall to help musicians hear each other better and to get more sound out to the audience. A 120-seat restaurant, designed by restaurant interiors specialist Marguerite Rodgers Ltd. and operated by the Wolfgang Puck franchise operation, will open next spring in a renovated space along Spruce where the gift shop operated.

The first round of work was designed to improve amenities so the Kimmel can boost earned revenue. But the more ambitious part of the plan - to be implemented in phases as money is raised - promises to do nothing less than remake the entire Kimmel experience.

The Broad Street façade has been reimagined. Gone is the black cube, replaced by a small stage. The curved black-granite wall announcing the building's name likewise disappears, making way for a box office closer to Broad Street than the current one.

Structural support for the glass-vault roof emanates from immovable street-level masses, but wherever possible, the building's Broad and Spruce sides are opened up with sheets of glass. A new plaza stage occupies a spot visible from Spruce. The current entrance on that side moves closer to Broad.

The basement Innovation Theater gets its own street-level entrance on Spruce.

The two large staircases rising from the Kimmel plaza to the first tier of Verizon Hall will be replaced. Wider, with a more gradual rise, the new ones will be positioned on an angle alongside Verizon's exterior. Planners have provided an option to equip each with a single-lane escalator in the middle - moving up or down depending on the flow of foot traffic at the time.

Two east-side underused elevators - which take visitors to the Hamilton Garden - will help ease circulation; with the curved granite wall gone, they will be more obvious. Verizon listeners can follow a new path to their seats: Take an elevator to the first tier; follow a passage along the south side outside the Perelman past a new bank of instrumental studios; and walk across a new foot bridge from Perelman to Verizon.

Several nonpublic spaces will be remade: a lounge for visiting orchestras where the ushers' lounge is now; a new ushers' lounge; a reception area for donors; office space for Kimmel administration.

And as "prosaic" as it might be, Timberlake anticipates many visitors' reaction when he says that new ground-floor restrooms will be welcome.

The intention is to make all this happen without displacing any of the Kimmel's resident companies by starting work in late spring, just after the Philadelphia Orchestra ends its subscription season, and putting the campus back together each year before the fall arts season begins.

Kiosks may be placed on the sidewalk outside the Kimmel, the Academy of Music, and the Merriam - thematic signifiers that the three buildings are jointly operated by the Kimmel Center Inc.

Kimmel leaders acknowledge that vitality does not bloom from architecture alone. The center's often-moribund atmosphere has had as much to do with a lack of money for programming and operations as anything else.

The current Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, funded with $10 million from Leonore Annenberg, has illustrated the potential for generating street activity, Ewers said.

"Now the next step is, we see what PIFA can do and we are trying to figure out how do we keep the vibrancy. . . . How do we attract tourists? I mean, the people are coming from all over the place."

Timberlake said his 11-year-old son visited two years ago and reported: " 'Dad, it makes me uncomfortable.' . . . He went back a week ago for a PIFA event and said, 'Dad, this is great.' Palpably, they can see the energy and the difference, and want to be drawn into something. And that's the introduction. Otherwise you've got an Oldsmobile here. You don't have any of that younger crowd coming . . . to attend an orchestra event or a Perelman event, because they think it's an old people's place."

The renovations are to some extent consistent with the Kimmel's slight mission shift from importer of outside groups to serving its resident companies. It still brings in visiting orchestras and other groups, but to a lesser extent than it once did.

"If we're able to do these projects, the revenue generation allows us to give [resident companies] rent concessions," Ewers said.

New office space would allow the group to give up rental offices at 260 S. Broad St. Enclosing the Hamilton Garden brings better climate (and noise) control, greatly increasing the times of year it can be rented and, therefore, enhancing income.

Newly installed graphics on one wall will trumpet the names of the resident companies. "You now have no idea who plays there," said Richard L. Maimon, the KieranTimberlake principal in charge of the master plan.

One overall effect of repositioning entrances and public spaces is that the fortress-like building will, planners hope, project its identity outward. There's more glass on the façade; large illustrations and graphics will depict music-making; the Broad Street entrance will no longer be set back; the restaurant will extend onto the Spruce Street sidewalk by about four feet.

Said Timberlake: "There's more transparency to allow people to see what's going on in the building. What we want to do is say, 'C'mon - c'mon in.' "

To see a virtual tour of the Kimmel Center under the new master plan, go to


 Read architecture critic Inga Saffron's review of the plans. Home & Design, E1.


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at or 215-854-5611. He blogs at


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