Monday, January 11, 2016

The Lost Academy of Music -- 14th Street and Irving Place

The original Academy of Music which opened in 1854 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Italian opera found its first home in New York City at Palmo’s Opera House, which opened in February 1844.  It was quickly replaced in favor by the grand Astor Place Opera House, which held 1,800 patrons and opened its doors on November 22, 1847.

But after several unsavory episodes, including a riot, plans were laid for a new, imposing theater.  In June 1852 the New-York Academy of Music was incorporated, with the expressed purpose of “advancing musical taste and to secure musical entertainments accessible to the public ‘at a moderate charge.’”  The managers also looked to avoid “the odor of exclusiveness.”

The budget for the new Academy of Music was placed at $135,000 (more than $4.25 million in 2015); but by the time the building at the corner of 14th Street and Irving Place was completed two years later, costs had risen to $335,000.

The elegant theater opened on October 2, 1854 with Bellini’s Norma.  If the founders sought to avoid the “odor of exclusiveness,” they failed.  The interiors were lavishly decorated.  Miller’s Stranger’s Guide for the City of New York called it “most elegant in its appointments” and said the auditorium could seat 4,000.  “The several tiers of boxes are beautifully decorated with gilt ornaments and chandeliers; and the dome is richly painted in panels representing Music, Poetry, Comedy and Tragedy.”

from the collection of the New York Public Library
Ticket prices were out of reach for the commoner.   An advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune in December that year listed the ticket prices for Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.   The $2 First Circle seats would equate to about $65 today; and the Proscenium Boxes were priced between $6 and $30 each, “according to locality and capacity.”  The most expensive box would be in the neighborhood of $950 in 2015.

The managers quickly realized that sumptuous surroundings would not excuse mediocre productions.  On the night of November 27, 1854 the audience was presented with two acts of the Puritans.  But when the curtain rose for the next act, patrons were surprised to see the last scene of Lucia di Lammermoor.  The critic from the New-York Daily Tribune was not pleased.

“A monkey’s body tied to a fish’s tail does not form a mermaid, and the half of one opera added to the third of another, does not, on the same principle, constitute a complete musical entertainment.  The Academy, last night, gave evidence of this fact.”

The auditorium was arranged so it could be converted for grand entertainments, like balls and receptions, by installing temporary flooring that created a dance floor level with the stage.   When society realized that the Prince of Wales was coming to New York in 1860, a “Grand Ball” in his honor was planned for the night of October 13.

The dance floor was rapidly installed and, in true Victorian fashion, huge pots of palms and tropical plants were hauled in.  The Times reported “The wealth of flowers lavished upon corridors, galleries, box-fronts and doorways was tropical for variety of hue, and Arabian for odors of beatitude.”  The orchestra was composed of “the most superb hands procurable in America.”

By the time the Prince arrived at 10:00 with his entourage, the Academy was crushed with a “very splendid, crowded, gorgeous and glittering levee, which well take rank with the most magnificent ‘jams’ of history,” according to The Times.  Unfortunately, the organizers of the ball had invited 500 more people than the house could accommodate.

Someone, said The Times, “had blundered.”  The 19-year old Prince was ready to dance, however by midnight the ball had not begun.   He was protected from the crushing throng in a roped-off section; but was surrounded by a crowd that “surged and swayed.”  Suddenly, a large portion of the floor directly in front of the Prince gave way.  The newspaper reported “As it was, people simply stared and stammered out their surprise.  Before they could recover from the shock they were saluted with a second.  This made the matter serious.”  Two hundred richly dressed guests plummeted through the gap.

The silk-slippered crowd rushed to the corridors and upper floors, fearing further collapse.  The ball was ruined, the City was embarrassed, but The Times found one positive in it.  With no dancing possible, “it killed the much debated ‘first dance,’ over which our ladies have been, or have been made to appear, so elegantly unhappy.”  There could be no jealousy or fighting when no one at all danced with the Prince.

Another of the Grand Balls was held in the Academy on January 29, 1866-- Harper's Weekly, (copyright expired)
Four months later the Academy of Music received another esteemed guest.  President-elect Abraham Lincoln and his wife were in town.  On February 20, 1861 the couple attended the production of the Ballo in Maschera—the first opera Lincoln ever attended.  Apparently the management had learned its lesson.  The Times reported “The arrangements will be completed in such a way as to prevent an undue crowd.”

On the night of May 23, 1866 the Academy of Music burned.  New Yorkers crowded the streets as the flames gutted the elegant structure.   Two weeks later the foundations and remaining walls were deemed structurally sound enough to use for rebuilding.

Harper's Weekly published a sketch of the burning opera house on June 9, 1866 (copyright expired)
The New York Times announced on June 12, 1866 that architect Thomas Jackson had been selected to design the new building.  His plans, said the newspaper, “do not differ materially from the designs used for the old building.”

Indeed, the replacement structure bore a muted resemblance to its predecessor.  The graceful parapet was eliminated, and the ornately-embellished arched openings were now unadorned.  The interiors, however, were lavish.   Capable of seating 2,500 patrons, the $250,000 building boasted “greatly increased” acoustic properties.

James D. McCabe, in his New York by Gaslight, wrote "It is magnificently decorated in crimson and gold, and its auditorium equals in beauty and splendor that of any European opera house." 

The rebuilt house was inaugurated with a masked ball -- Harper's Weekly, March 16, 1867 (copyright expired)
The first production in the new house, the Barber of Seville, was staged on March 7, 1867.  The Times focused not on the opera, but on the new venue.  “The excellent shape of the balcony and the parquette not only lends a beauty to the new which the old house did not possess, but is something that the occupants will be most grateful for.”  The newspaper deemed it the most “pleasant of any theatre in the City, and perhaps of any city in the world.  These seats, and the grand tier furnish inducements for grand toilettes, to which the auditors last night fully yielded.”

Indeed, the display of “grand toilettes” at the Academy of Music was de rigueur for the upper echelon of Manhattan society.  Opening nights at the Academy saw boxes filled with socialites dripping in pearls and diamonds.  James McCabe explained "The scene during opera nights is very brilliant, the audience being in full dress, and comprising a thorough representation of the elite and fashion of the Metropolis."  In several scenes in her The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton placed her characters in the Academy of Music.  Owning a box here declared one’s place in society.

And that caused an eventual problem.

Thomas Jackson produced a similar, yet more austere structure -- from the collection of the New York Public Library

In 1908 New York historian Henry E. Abbey noted that by 1882 “it had become obvious that the Academy of Music could not accommodate all the representatives of the two elements of fashionable society who, for one reason or another, wanted to own or occupy the boxes which had come to be looked upon as the visible sign of wealth and social position.”

Abbey explained that no one was unhappy with the Academy itself, nor with the performances.  But the old box owners would not give them up; causing irritation to other millionaires.  A group headed by William K. Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Robert Goelet and his brother Ogden, Pierrepont Morgan and James Roosevelt came up with a solution--the Metropolitan Opera. 

When the Academy managers realized the men were serious, they offered to alter the old house, adding 120 new seats and 26 boxes.  But it was too late; their minds had been made up.

The Metropolitan Opera House was opened in 1883 on Broadway at 39th Street, far north of the Academy of Music.  The theater district had begun moving northward years earlier, leaving the Academy in its dust.  The stubborn management of the staid old opera house, however, was steadfast in remaining on 14th Street.

The managers redecorated the Academy of Music before opening night that year.  Both houses opened the same night, October 22.  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.” 
But on opening night, The Metropolitan Opera House won the first battle hands down.
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 1912 the structure was being renovated to a silent movie theater--photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The humiliated theater turned to vaudeville in 1888--a crushing demise to the opera house that had defined Manhattan society.   Following the turn of the century the auditorium was leased for labor meetings and rallies. 

In 1916 the old Academy of Music was screening silent movies--this one starring Theda Bara -- photo by Byron Co. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The end of the line for the historic theater came in August 1925 when Consolidated Gas Company (later Con Edison) purchased the property.  The New York Times reported “It is understood that the old Academy of Music will be demolished and an addition to the Consolidated Gas Company building erected.”

New Yorkers visited the old theater for the last time on May 17, 1926 photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Architects Warren & Wetmore designed the firm’s 26-story tower on the site of the demolished Academy building.  The surviving Con Ed Building is as well-known a landmark today as the Academy of Music was for more than half a century.

photo by Beyond My Ken


  1. Such a wonderful, touching (and historical) tribute to a now-vanished institution.

  2. A wonderful story and snapshot of NYC history. It's a shame how much we've lost that we never realized at the time.

  3. I recall a later theater called the Academy of Music on 14th east of Union Sq. It would be interesting to know how it relates to the opera house.

  4. I can’t tell you if it related to the opera house but I can tell you it was an awesome venue for a rock concerts in the 70s and 80s. I tended quite a few shows there with my friends lotta great bands played there. great memories