North Broad developer joins Metropolitan Opera House restoration project

Developer Eric Blumenfeld tours the Metropolitan Opera House. He recently joined a project to restore the building. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)
Developer Eric Blumenfeld tours the Metropolitan Opera House. He recently joined a project to restore the building. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 17, 2012

The old Metropolitan Opera House at 858 N. Broad St. is a tale of two buildings.

Enter from Poplar Street and you pass through a simple lobby and descend into a 1,000-seat gospel hall with bright blue carpet, blue chairs, and a big blue tarp nailed to the ceiling.

On a raised stage, high-back chairs are arranged in a semicircle around a pulpit, where the Rev. Mark Hatcher Jr. holds forth on Sundays before his Holy Ghost Church.

But follow the steep stairs off the lobby to the upper levels and you walk into a place that looks more like a piece of ancient Rome - dark, decaying, and dreary.

There, the 104-year-old opera house remains in a state of suspended disrepair. Chunks of ceiling and wall have disintegrated into dust that collects in piles on the tarp between the upper and lower levels.

Since buying the theater in 1996, Hatcher has wanted to restore it. He now has a new partner - North Broad Street developer Eric Blumenfeld - to help him.

Three weeks ago, the two signed an agreement to work together on reviving the old opera house. Hatcher said that at this stage, they are only exploring ideas, which Blumenfeld possesses in multitudes.

Blumenfeld just purchased for an undisclosed sum the Divine Lorraine Hotel, two blocks to the south. He plans to convert that blighted beauty into rental apartments with restaurants on the ground floor.

He also has an agreement to acquire four vacant acres behind the hotel and has floated the idea of developing the land into a campus for four public high schools. The Philadelphia School District, at this point, is only listening.

Hatcher and Blumenfeld both see the old Met as a logical stepping-stone for revitalizing the North Broad corridor.

"We just decided that the time is now," Hatcher said. "He was always telling me, 'Reverend, you keep holding onto the Metropolitan and when I move on the Divine Lorraine, your project is next.'"

Hatcher said there had been no discussion of money or investment. "We want to sit down and map it out together," he said.

Hatcher bought the theater for $250,000 in 1996. The city had wanted to demolish the structure, declaring it a hazard.

Members of Hatcher's congregation worked to clean up what they could. They cobbled together funds to patch holes in the ceiling and stem the decay.

A decade after buying the building, Hatcher tried to launch a major restoration, but the project, which needed state and city funding, never moved forward.

On a tour last week of the cavernous theater, with its circular balconies and unobstructed views of a stage, larger than the Academy of Music, Blumenfeld sees only potential where others see trouble.

"Look at this," Blumenfeld said. "How could you not try to bring this back?"

The key, Blumenfeld said, is getting more use out of the building. For starters, he said, the gospel hall could be adapted into space for events like weddings. The theater, meanwhile, could be used as a music venue with up to 4,000 seats.

Another idea: using some of the massive space to exhibit contemporary art. "In the daytime it could be a museum," he said. "At night, a concert hall."

There's also room for a basketball court.

And why not? In the wings of the old opera house are the remnants of basketball backboards. In a previous incarnation, the big stage was used for basketball games.

Built in 1908 by Oscar Hammerstein I, grandfather of the famous Broadway lyricist, the four-story, white brick building was home to his Philadelphia Opera Company. Caruso sang on its great stage. Nijinsky danced there with the Ballets Russes.

The Met was used as an opera venue until the 1920s, when it became a vaudeville theater, a movie house, a ballroom and later a venue for sports, including boxing, wrestling and basketball.

In 1954, a faith healer named Thea F. Jones bought the building and used it as a church until 1990. It was vacant until 1995.

Hatcher first met Blumenfeld about a decade ago, when the developer was one of the few people touting the potential of North Broad. Blumenfeld converted an old factory at 640 N. Broad into loft apartments and worked with a partner to do the same at 600 N. Broad.

Others are investing in the area as well.

Developer Bart Blatstein is converting the former State Office Building at Spring Garden and Broad into apartments. On that same block, Blatstein wants to use the former headquarters of The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News at 400 N. Broad as an anchor for a casino, retail and entertainment center, and hotel.

Across Broad at Callowhill, meanwhile, the walls are going up on a new studio and offices for the Pennsylvania Ballet and its school.

The timing for the Metropolitan, Blumenfeld said, is right.

"I always said when I got my arms around the Divine Lorraine, then it was time to engage," he said. "Everything is connected."


Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @j_linq.

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