The sidewalk along Locust Street near Broad has darkened, and the air smells of fresh-sawn pine planking. Eight levels of scaffolding crept up the north side of the Academy of Music recently, preparation for another summer of maintenance. The building, opened in 1857, was home to the Philadelphia Orchestra for a century, and though the ensemble no longer performs there much, the orchestra still owns it and is responsible for its renovation.
Work began in earnest in 1994 and has continued just about every summer. Last year brought a transformation. Decades of historically inappropriate renovations were stripped from the ballroom, and, using a black and white photograph from 1860 as guide, designers returned it to pretty much its original appearance.
Nothing so dramatic is happening this summer, though in a building that's 153 years old, sprinkling $800,000 to $1 million around won't be hard to do. Unglamorous as it may be, bathrooms are being updated and made compliant with handicapped-accessible code. Fluorescent light strips above the Locust Street sidewalk will be replaced with less obvious lighting. And all of the dark-brown masonry on the Locust Street side of the building will be repaired and then given the same lighter latte-brown coating applied to the Broad Street facade last summer. When scaffolding comes down in late August, the difference promises to startle.
"What I think is great is that the Locust Street side has always been so dismal and dull," said Academy president Joanna McNeil Lewis. "I always call it spooky because of that dark Victorian look, and I think this will bring that side of the building alive. It will be a wonderful new look."
There's a long list of projects ahead, but the Academy doesn't have the cash to do them immediately. A $3 million debt was repaid recently, said Lewis. "We’re trying to do what we need to do, but are not spending lavishly right now. We are debt free – there were some bonds for 21st Century project and we paid them off. With the economy the way it was, we weren't getting the rate we wanted. What it means is that though we don’t have the cash to do lots of projects it hasn’t held us up completely."
Items still on the Academy's to-do list: commission a "seating study" to determine if there is a way to reconfigure the Academy's plush-red seats so there are fewer obstructed views; replace more bathrooms; and restoration of the gilt mural (by Karl Heinrich Schmolze) above the chandelier with its illustrated interpretations of poetry, dance, comedy and tragedy.
Also ahead, says Lewis, is a readjustment to the Academy's Anniversary Concert and Ball the last Saturday in January. It's been Lewis' mission as president to attract a younger group of supporters to the event, and she has done that by replacing headliners James Galway and Yo-Yo Ma with popsters like Sting and Billy Joel.
She won't divulge the draw for the next Anniversary concert, but it's clear there's a change in the wind.
"One of my goals this year is to take back the ball as a fund-raiser for the Academy of Music and have it be not just people going to see an event with a popular artist," she said. "We’ve being doing that for five years and it’s time to shift it so people realize that we need to support the Academy of Music and the Philadelphia Orchestra to ensure their survival."