National Architecture Week: Renovation of Philadelphia’s Historic Metropolitan Opera House

The Power of Penn campaign will be hosting an event tonight at a newly renovated historic building renovated by an architect with a Penn connection.

Philadelphia’s historic Metropolitan Opera House, located at Broad and Poplar Streets in North Philadelphia, has undergone a painstaking renovation over the past couple years. Opened in 1908 with a production of Carmen, the Met (as it is affectionately known) was built by Oscar Hammerstein I, a theater impresario and the grandfather of the well-known lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. It had the largest capacity (over 4,000 seats) of any theater of its kind in the world when it opened. The theater hosted opera productions until 1934, when it became a movie theater. In the succeeding decades, the theater served a variety of purposes, including ballroom, sports venue and, most recently, a church.

When Sam Olshin (C’82, G’Ar’86) first stepped into the abandoned Met, several years of vacancy had caused the building to fall into serious disrepair. “The finishes were torn out, the windows were broken, much original plasterwork was gone, the roof was shot. It had been vandalized and every bit of copper had been stolen,” Mr. Olshin, a lecturer at Bryn Mawr College, said. However, despite the building’s dilapidated appearance, its structure was largely intact. “It was built out of solid reinforced concrete and had these amazing roof trusses that kept it from collapsing after years of water damage.”

Mr. Olshin’s firm, Atkin Olshin Schade (AOS), undertook an 18-month, $56 million renovation, funded by EBRM, the property’s developer. During the process, Mr. Olshin found himself returning to principles he’d seen put into practice at PennDesign. “Penn had evolved to the point where all these disciplines are really talking to one another. Today, architecture practice is a mix of landscape, preservation and city planning. Our firm’s work is one part of a larger experience, and Penn has done a great job to instill that.” Before the Met project, AOS had also undertaken several projects on Penn’s campus, including restorations of College Hall, the Richards Medical Building, the Jaffe Building (Almanac October 18, 1994), Stiteler Hall, Penn’s Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander School (Almanac October 15, 2002) and the Mainwaring Wing at the Penn Museum (Almanac April 30, 2002).

However, the advanced deterioration of the Met presented a unique challenge. AOS embarked on a complete overhaul of the exterior and interior of the building. The interior had had its seats torn out and had seen much of its distinctive decorative plaster ceiling gutted by water damage. Mr. Olshin said, “We couldn’t preserve [the plaster] like we wanted, but we did laser scanning of the decorative plaster detailing, and we were able to recreate the look. When you go in now, you see a complete recreation of all the historic plaster that was there.” The renovation also restored the building’s rooftop cornices, added period gilt detailing on the interior balcony boxes, and restored the building’s seats. The venue features 3,400 seats with several hundred removable for a general admission floor configuration. It reopened on December 3, 2018, with a sold-out concert by Bob Dylan, and it stands poised to become the newest of Philadelphia’s many successful live music venues.

Atkin Olshin Schade’s renovation of the Met garnered praise from the historic preservation industry, including the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia Preservation Achievement Grand Jury Award and the ACE Mentor Program of Greater Philadelphia Project of the Year, both for 2019. Mr. Olshin, who has appeared in several alumni panel discussions at the Weitzman School of Design said, “I’m very pleased to be able to renovate a building that will allow Penn to celebrate everything that’s come before and the exciting things on the horizon. Penn doesn’t just have its own wonderful buildings to celebrate in, like Irvine Auditorium, but other venues around the city to celebrate as well. It drives home the kind of connection Penn has with Philadelphia, and I think that’s fantastic.”

caption: The exterior prior to the extensive renovation and restoration.

caption: The reopened, revived and restored building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1972.

caption: The  water damaged interior had suffered from years of vacancy and vandalism.

caption: The interior of this completely restored and revitalized venue with its retro features, especially in the ceiling, now seats 3,400.