Christine E. Brown details the history and recent renovation of the Philadelphia Academy of Music's 153-year-old Ballroom.
Put on your dancing shoes, and let the party begin. “The Grand Old Lady of Locust Street” has a glittering new party and reception venue to show off in its magnificently restored Ballroom. The historic Academy of Music has had many significant periods of construction or renovation since its opening in January 1857, but none have been more transformative than the beautiful restoration of the Ballroom.
At its opening in 1857, the Ballroom was described as the most beautiful room in all of Philadelphia, and was the premier reception space for the city. Said John Trosino, senior associate at Philadelphia’s KlingStubbins architecture and engineering firm, which was responsible for the current restoration, “The historic importance of the room, and that legacy, guided every design decision we made, in the hopes of recreating those same sentiments today.” The Ballroom is the latest in a series of renovations to the Academy, which have included the extensive, 13-month restoration of the Academy’s magnificent chandelier, and other lighting and interior restorations in the auditorium.
“Our Academy is this wonderful historic landmark with a rich history of different uses, and we want it to continue to be a community building,” said Joanna McNeil Lewis, president of the Academy of Music. “It’s a treasure we can never afford to lose.”
Ever since 1957, when The Philadelphia Orchestra Association purchased the Academy of Music, the Orchestra has performed at the Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball. (The Academy was also the Orchestra’s home from 1900 until the Kimmel Center opened in 2001.) The proceeds from this annual event, one of the most successful fundraisers in the nation, have funded the ongoing restoration work.
The funding for the Ballroom restoration was one of the last gifts to the Academy from Leonore Annenberg, renowned philanthropist and civic leader who, along with her late husband, Walter, were long-time patrons of the Academy and The Philadelphia Orchestra. A celebration of her life, and a gala reception, on September 24, 2009, marked the official opening of the Ballroom to the public. Among the guests were Governor Edward G. Rendell, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Tom Brokaw, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, and Lord Peter Carrington, representing Charles, the Prince of Wales. The celebration included a video tribute from the prince, acknowledging the Annenbergs’s special relationship to the British monarchy, begun during Mr. Annenberg’s tenure as Ambassador to the Court of St. James during the Nixon administration.
Photos and videos of the progress of the Ballroom restoration were sent to Mrs. Annenberg, but sadly she died in March 2009 at age 91, before the project was complete. After the tribute ceremony, the 1,600 guests flowed into the foyers and up the newly renovated staircase to see the Ballroom restored to its original 1857 appearance.
Through years of continuous use, the Ballroom required repeated renovations. But, whether for reasons of soundproofing, changing use, or fashion of the day, all were done with no design context to the rest of the historic structure. The Ballroom measures 40 ft. x 80 ft., with the central ceiling vault 35 ft. in height. In the early 1900s, the room’s only windows and exterior doors were walled over. In the 1920s, faceted mirrors covered every door and tympanum above (a tympanum is an architectural element located within an arch or pediment). The walls and ceilings were painted a grey/beige color in the 1940s and were repeatedly painted in that color for the next 60-plus years. The 1960s introduced strip fluorescent lighting and what Mrs. Annenberg referred to as “an unfortunate choice of carpet.”
The first task for Trosino and his team was to discover what the Ballroom looked like as constructed in 1857. Hours of painstaking design research, and the discovery of an 1860 photograph of the Ballroom, revealed the original design intent. Advanced scanning techniques and image enhancement enlarged the 1860 photograph. Although grainy and imprecise, it allowed the team to see some of the original decorative painting, and the scale of the original chandeliers. Atelier Mathieu Lustrerie, the firm in southern France that restored the glorious grand chandelier in the Academy’s main auditorium, began research and design on the chandeliers and sconces shown in the 1860 photograph, creating a variety of material prototypes. The gold-plated bronze reproductions of the gas chandeliers and sconces incorporate themes of music and theater into the design, as was common in the late 19th century. Along with Lustrerie, internationally renowned artisans and skilled craftsmen from the United States, England, France, India, and Australia were employed to recreate the distinctive features and designs of the original Ballroom.
The infill wall covering the exterior windows and doors was carefully removed and revealed a wonderful and unexpected original design element—five original arched windows in the transoms, each with a unique stained glass depicting musical instruments and floral designs. The 24-ft.-high new windows and doors contain double pane insulated glass and meticulously concealed sound seals, along with a three-inch airspace between an interior and exterior set of doors, containing light control and room darkening shades. Four of the original five windows were protected and preserved by the infill wall, and the one replacement stained glass window duplicates the original themes.
Months of meticulous paint removal by conservators from John Canning Studios revealed outlines of the original decorative paint scheme evoking an elegant and ornate French-inspired pattern of designs. Eighteen distinct hues and their resultant mid-tones, high lights, and low lights resulted in over 100 paint colors used for the sophisticated and exquisite trompe-l’oeil decorative paint throughout the Ballroom.
Once the mirrors covering the interior entrance doors were removed, the tympanums revealed delicate paintings on canvas, applied over plaster. The fragile paintings were removed and archived, and replaced with tableaux from seven of Mozart’s most famous operas, reminiscent of the Academy’s original role as an opera house.
The original flooring in the Ballroom was wood, but since the Ballroom is a continuously used space, rather than a historical museum, the Pennsylvania Historical Commission gave permission to design a carpet for the room. The carpet exposes approximately 5 ft. of mahogany floor around the room’s perimeter. The design of the new carpet, manufactured by renowned British carpet maker Brintons, reflects the room’s French decorative painting patterns, and incorporates musical imagery woven into the design on axis with the windows, doors, and chandeliers.
The Ballroom restoration project included tasks to improve and protect the historic structure, and included a new roof to eliminate persistent leaks, new mechanical and electrical systems, new exterior faзade lighting and repainting (on the Broad St. side), and renovations to the Ballroom’s adjoining elevator lobby and restrooms. Said Jody Lewis, “We’re in this fortunate moment in time where we can preserve the artistic integrity of the space, and yet the advances in technology allow us to make it so much better, safer, easier, in terms of code issues, better lighting, and improved systems.”
Now, for the first time in over 100 years, the lights from the Ballroom’s chandeliers and sconces will be visible from Broad Street. “One of the more exciting results is that you can now look up from the street and see lights, and people can see when there’s an event going on. It’s suddenly very much alive, “said Ms. Lewis.
Traditionally the President’s Reception preceding the annual Academy of Music Anniversary Concert is held in the Ballroom. This year, those lucky guests will experience the Ballroom as it truly was in 1857, fully restored to its original grandeur and elegance, just as Leonore Annenberg envisioned.
Christine E. Brown is principal of Brown Consulting, which specializes in providing marketing and communications services to the architecture, design, construction, and real estate development professions.