Monday, May 7, 2012

The Lost 1883 Metropolitan Opera House -- Broadway at 39th Street

At the turn of the century the neighborhood around The Metropolitan Opera House was still fashionable -- photo Library of Congress

At one point in her The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton places her socially prominent characters in the Academy of Music.  It was the opera house where New York’s old guard in the 1870s put itself on display.   For wealthy socialites like Wharton’s fictitious Newland Archer or Ellen Olenska being seen at the Academy of Music was as much a social obligation as an evening of entertainment.

Following the Civil War, New Yorkers were desperate to compete with European capitals in terms of taste and cultivation.  Opera was one means of showing that Americans were not backward bumpkins.  The brick structure had a somewhat barn-like appearance that did not dissuade Manhattan’s wealthiest and oldest families from hoarding their boxes and passing them down to family members.  The result was that the newly-made millionaires of the second half of the century were unable to buy boxes.

It was unacceptable to families with names like Morgan, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt.

A group of rich and determined men decided to start its own opera venue—one that would outshine the old Academy.

On April 11, 1880 The New York Tribune published the news that the “Metropolitan Opera House Company, Limited, of New-York” had been incorporated and a meeting held at the office of James A. Roosevelt & Son to open the subscription book.  Twenty-five wealthy financiers and industrialists signed up immediately, among them William K. Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Robert Goelet and his brother Ogden, Pierrepont Morgan and James Roosevelt.

Roosevelt told reporters that the house would be north of the entertainment district, closer to the mansions of Fifth Avenue.  “It is probable…that a situation will be chosen north of 34th Street and between Third and Sixth Avenues,” he said.

He added that “The opera house will be constructed as economically as possible, the cost not to exceed $600,000 in any event.  There will be no attempt at external display.”

The first shot in the war between the Academy of Music with its patrician subscribers and the Metropolitan Opera House with its nouveau riche founders had been shot.

When a reporter from The Sun asked George Warren, “Can New York support two opera houses?” he replied smugly, “It will support the better of the two, at all events.”

The Academy attempted to diffuse the situation by accommodating the upstarts.  On the same day that the incorporation of the Metropolitan was announced, Colonel Mapleson told The Sun “Alterations will be made whereby 120 new seats and twenty-six boxes will be added.”

But it was too late.  The minds of the millionaires had been made up.

Two years later the project seemed, to some, doomed never to get off the ground.  The original estimate of $600,000 had grown to $1,050,000 when land values in the desired area were factored in.  Then it was raised to $1,250,000 and by March 15, 1882 the estimate was about $1,525,000.  The New York Tribune reported that “The directors are now in a quandary as to whether it is better to go ahead or stop where they are.”

A vote among the stockholders decided, eight to three, to forge ahead. 

Within a few months ground was broken on Broadway.  The building would stretch from 39th Street to 40th Street.  Prominent architect J. Cleaveland Cady was given the commission, despite his having no experience in theater design..  Decades later the Federal Writers’ Project in its “New York City Guide” would say that this inexperience “seemed to matter little; audiences ever since have paid for his mistakes, as but half the stage can be seen from the side seats of the balcony and family circle.  What did matter at the time, especially to the press and to readers of its society columns, was that the opera house had a ‘Golden Horseshoe’—two tiers of boxes and a row of baignoires—occupied by the seventy original stockholders, among them the Vanderbilts, the Morgans, and the Goulds.”   For their $15,000, the stock holders were entitled to one of these boxes.
Covered carriage entrances at the side streets were reserved for box owners -- photo NYPL Collection

As the opera house rose, Henry E. Abbey secured the lease in December 1882.   The owners were responsible for furnishing scenery, costumes and props for twenty Italian operas.  Abbey had full charge of everything else.  He had already secured prima donna Christine Nilsson—a major coup d’état against the Academy where she was expected to appear.

By May 1883 the exterior of the new house was nearly completed and finishing work was being done inside.  The Tribune remarked on the fire-proof quality of the building.  “In the auditorium there will hardly be anything combustible, except the floor, and above the stage will be the most improved automatic apparatus for the speedy flooding of the stage in case of danger.”

The newspaper referred to the structure as a “great pile of light-colored brick and iron…shaped into architectural forms borrowed from the Italian Renaissance.”  Despite James Roosevelt’s earlier assertion that “There will be no attempt at external display,” the new house would be grand and imposing as compared to the boxy Academy of Music.    “It has been Mr. Cady’s confessed intention to avoid all transient fashions and keep clear of the architectural humors of the day,” said The Tribune.  “He has chosen a style that is approved, and he has striven to subordinate to it all the details of the decoration.”

The building stretched back to 7th Avenue, seen here in 1966, where the rear was decidedly less beautiful -- photo Library of Congress

The Italian Renaissance style structure was clad in brick, brownstone and terra cotta.  Its successive rows of arches and balustraded roof line had a decidedly European flavor.

The New York Times was concerned that the auditorium was “on a scale of possibly too great magnitude.”  The newspaper promised that it would “dazzle the eyes” of opera-goers used to “the primitive surroundings” of the Academy of Music.  The scope of the theater would be monumental with 5,780 seats, a stage 92 feet deep and 150 feet wide and the proscenium “the largest in America,” according to Henry Abbey.  The auditorium was five feet longer and three feet wider than La Scala in Milan.

The massive stage opening was redecorated in Beaux Arts ornamentation by Carrere & Hastings in 1901 -- photo Library of Congress

On May 27, 1883 The New York Tribune wrote “The appearance of the auditorium will be light and sunny.  The architectural details are to be in harmony with the style of the exterior, and the prevailing tint will be that of old ivory.  The proscenium is nearly square, and will have the effect of a gigantic picture frame.”

Paintings adorned the arch and the ceiling of the main auditorium, including artist Francis Lathrop’s “The Crowning of Apollo” and “The Chorus” and “The Ballet” by Francis Maynard.    Eight life-sized statues of the Muses decorated the proscenium.

In a forward-thinking move, electrical wiring was run throughout the building “in anticipation of the happy time when the problem of electric lighting shall have been wholly solved,” said The Tribune.  In the meantime thousands of gas jets provided a warm light.

The boxes were designed with removable partitions so they could be combined when necessary.  Here were silk draperies and wall coverings in “rich red and old gold,” custom woven by Cheney’s mills of Connecticut.  The corridors behind the parterre and tiers included dressing rooms for ladies, smoking rooms for the men and small cafes.

The Tribune noted that “Between the corridor and each box will be a neat salon, seven feet by eight, in the furnishing of which each box-holder is to be permitted to exercise his own taste and fancy, and expend his own money.”

Cady designed the mahogany chairs for the boxes, with black rattan backs and seats.  The tiers were connected to covered carriage entrances on 39th and 40th Streets so the millionaire patrons would did be jostled by the general public who entered on Broadway.

On October 22, 1883 the new house opened.  It was the largest opera house in the world on opening night and the Horseshoe was populated by a consolidated wealth of more than $500 million.  Christine Nilsson sang the role of Marguerite in Faust as Vianesi conducted.

The same night the Academy of Music opened its season in its newly-redecorated house.  For weeks society was torn between which house to patronize.  The New York Tribune admitted that “Where to go is this year quite as troublesome a question as what to wear.”  The factions remained divided between the old patroon families and the new industrialists and bankers.

The Tribune noted that on opening night “There will be a dazzling show of fair faces and brilliant toilets at both places.”

Colonel Mapleson of the Academy of Music pooh-poohed the new house to the New York World a day before its opening.  “People may go to the new opera-house to see what it is like,” he scoffed, “but gradually the novelty of the place will die away, and then they will go where they can hear good music.”  He played off Christine Nilsson’s desertion saying “Christine is losing youth and beauty and her voice is not what it used to be.  She sings hardly anything but Marguerite, and you know ‘Faust’ cannot be given over four times in the season’ the public won’t have it.  Now, I understand, they intend giving it six times.”

But on opening night, The Metropolitan Opera House won the first battle hands down.

“Seen from the second tier of boxes,” said the World, “the new Opera House with its brilliant assemblage presented a dazzling sight.  No such audience had probably ever been seen in America.  The triple rows of boxes were all filled.  Diamonds flashed, all the way round from one pole of the great horseshoe magnet to the other, and costumes of the richest materials shone in every hue.

“At 8:30 the house was entirely filled.  Balcony and gallery were congested, inasmuch as they were the only places where men and women could stand up

“A buzz went over the great assembly.  It was the drone of conversation and comment.  Lorgnettes were leveled in all directions.  Men were standing up in the parquet making sweeping surveys of the house.  Ladies leaned over from their boxes to note and smile at their neighbors.”

At the end of the evening Mme. Nilsson gave an encore of the “Jewel Song” after which a “huge casket containing a solid gold wreath and two massive gold pins of elaborate and costly workmanship” were passed to her from the orchestra area, according to The World.

The casket was inscribed “To Christine Nilsson, in commemoration of the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House.”

The war between the houses lasted two years.  In 1911 Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians would recall “For two seasons both houses were occupied by rival managers, rival singers, and rival audiences.  The new house prevailed, and the old, from the most aristocratic playhouse in the city, became one of the most humble and democratic.”

In August 1892 the structure that had been so widely touted as “fireproof” was gutted by fire.  The interior was rebuilt and the house reopened in November 1893.    Life magazine commented on the renovations.  “The color scheme is far lighter and, in combination with the lavish use of electroliers, serves to make it bright, and at the same time a most becoming background to an audience.”

Elegantly dressed patrons fill the boxes in 1898 -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

“The audience at the opening performance was as brilliant as the house could hold.  One would think from its appearance that such a thing as ‘hard times’ had never been heard of.  Every seat and every box was occupied.  In dress and jewels this audience could vie with any similar gathering the world over, but, being in America, the element of feminine personal beauty was added to a degree which should make any fair-minded foreigner admit that it excelled any audience ever in an opera house.”

A decade later Carrere & Hastings was hired to renovate the theater.  The architects got rid of the baignoires but retained the two tiers of boxes, now known as the Diamond Horseshoe.  At the height of the Beaux Arts movement, the auditorium was lavished with lush, carved decorations.

A portion of Carrere & Hastings exuberant auditorium decoration -- photo Library of Congress

The list of stellar names to perform at the Met was endless.  In 1904 Enrico Caruso appeared in Aida—the first of sixteen consecutive “Caruso opening nights.”  Nearly twenty years later he would give his last performance.

While appearing in Elisir d’ Amore at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on December 11, 1920 he suffered a hemorrhage of the throat; but insisted on completing the act.   He gave only three more performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, the last being on Christmas Eve 1920.  The following morning doctors were summoned when he began screaming in pain.  He died on August 2 the following year at 48 years of age.

photo Library of Congress

The great Arturo Toscanini was conductor from 1908 until 1915 when he left after major disagreements with the management.  The maestro is largely credited to bringing the house to its highest musical standards.

Although the house was operating with a surplus in 1929 the Great Depression would change all that.  While ticket buyers would stand in line and performances were often standing-room only, generous donations and contributions of stockholders fell off significantly.  The Metropolitan Opera House was in danger of financial ruin.

In 1935 the house was reorganized and the Metropolitan Opera Association was formed.  It sold radio rights for Saturday matinee broadcasts--a move that brought in as much as $90,000 per season.  The Metropolitan Opera House was saved.

Yet there was the matter of location and space.

The neighborhood by now had been swallowed up by the Garment District.  Well-dressed patrons were obligated to visit an area distinctly less refined than it had been in 1883.  A nostalgic public donated $1 million in 1938 to thwart its possible destruction and  "The New York City Guide" in 1939 noted “Efforts to provide a new building for the Metropolitan Opera House are made perennially—indeed, Rockefeller Center is a by-product of this movement.  Yet, the warehouse-like yellow-brick structure that occupies an entire block on the edge of the garment district remains the home of the world’s foremost opera company.”

But by the 1960s the same problems of space and location were even more untenable.   Trailers lined the back of the building where props and costumes were stored in less-than-desirable conditions.  The Metropolitan Opera was the only legitimate theater so far south and its management was lured by the proposed Lincoln Center and its white marble, modern venues.

In 1966, with only a few months left, the Metropolitan Opera was surrounded by business buildings and its ground floor architecture obliterated by pseudo-modern facades -- photo Library of Congress

The Metropolitan Opera Association leased the property to development firm Keystone Associates for fifty years.  The Old Met would come down.

The brand new Landmarks Preservation Commission was not so sure.  In its very first public hearing the Commission put the fate of the Metropolitan Opera House on the table.  But the Met’s management put a gun to its own head, insisting that if it were forced to retain the old structure, the opera company would be doomed.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission , faced with the destruction of a building or a world class opera company, gave in. 

One last effort of reprieve was headed by the heavy-hitters of the American musical community in 1966.  Marian Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, Gian Carlo Menotti and others began a movement to raise $8 million to purchase the property and up to $14 million to renovate it.

The Opera management declined, saying it would receive nearly double the $8 million in rental payments on the land.

 Ten days after the offer was made, Leopold Stokowski conducted the last performance in the hall on April 16, 1966.  It was a tearful, gala farewell.  The maestro turned to the audience and, quite unexpectedly, made a passionate appeal.  “I beg you to help save this magnificent house.”

Although preservationists and music lovers initiated a hard-fought battle, by August 1966 it was apparent that the Old Met was doomed.

In January 1967 the first swing of the wrecking ball smashed into the venerable façade of the Metropolitan Opera House. has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog


  1. Another sad story of a beautiful building biting the dust. Thanks for blogging the memory of this incredible structure!

  2. The interiors were indeed spectacular and the building should have been saved. Like the many movie palaces that once filled the theatre district, The Paramount, the Roxy, The Ziegfield, etc, etc, such venues are irreplaceable and will never be built again. Tragic loss for NYC

  3. According to a good source, Kitty Carlisle showed up at the last audition at the old Met. She sang, "Falling in Love With Love" in order to be able to sing on that stage one more time.

  4. The bank that is in the lobby of the new building contains several of the original chandeliers from the Met.

  5. As a lifelong New Yorker (and lifelong student of New York) who's old enough to remember the original Metropolitan Opera (albeit as a kid), I'm very impressed by your blog -- I especially like the photos (which aren't the same ones that come up all the time).

    Thought you might enjoy some of my observations about the old Met, which I visited twice as a kid (in part to see it before it was torn down).

    The first time I went, the part of the theater I sat in was the Grand Tier (which, if I remember correctly, is the balcony directly above the one that containing the private boxes). As it turns out, this seating location was important in terms of seeing the interior of the theater, as the old Met (like many theaters of its day) separated out those who had expensive seats from those who had cheap seats. Only the seats for the orchestra level, the boxes and the Grand Tier were accessible through the main lobby. Patrons seated in other areas of the theater, used separate entrances. So had we not had seats for the Grand Tier, I wouldn't have been able to see much of the old Met.

    I also have to say that I was kind of disappointed in the interior spaces (hallways, lobbies, stairways, etc.) of the theater. The interior spaces at the Met were not all that impressive. The Paris Opera House (which I've only seen in pictures) it was not. For an opera house, the public spaces were not grand and impressive, but rather kind of smallish and intimate -- more on the order of a grand residence than a grand theater. (And maybe just a bit bigger than those of a Broadway theater.)

    However, the theater itself (the auditorium) was every bit as impressive as photographs communicate -- maybe even more so.

    The second time I went I sat in a cheap seat. If I remember correctly I was in the very last row of the gallery (the top most level). And this time it meant a separate entrance and a very, very long climb in a "blind" stairway (which was almost like a slightly more decorated fire stair) to the top of the auditorium. If I remember correctly there was some kind of second lobby way up there (for refreshments, etc.). Also there seemed to be some kind of impromptu terrace onto the roof of another part of the building. I remember because it was one of the last performances in the building, and it was towards the end of the season -- so it was kind of warm and the door was opened to provide some cool air.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sat., November 17, 2012, 10:00 pm

    1. Thank you for the thorough and very interesting memories. It's great to hear first-hand experiences about buildings like this. Thanks again.

  6. "Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disapear irretrievably."

    walter benjamin

    1. I remember this building well in its final days, but never had the pleasure of entering it. The old Penn Station/Caracalla Bath structure, along with the old Met, remain the greatest travesties of public destruction that New York has ever committed.