Kimmel Center pursues radical plan to remake the Merriam Theater

The Kimmel Center is pursuing a plan to demolish one part of the Merriam Theater while renovating the other.

The Kimmel Center is laying the groundwork for an ambitious reworking of the Merriam Theater that would demolish part of the building and replace it with a tower that could be up to 32 stories high.

Plans are still early, and could move in a different direction. But ideally, the performing arts center, which purchased the century-old theater from the University of the Arts in November, would partner with a real estate developer to raze the seven-story building fronting South Broad Street that currently houses the theater’s lobby and offices above.

In its place would go a tower whose base would contain roomier lobby spaces and amenities leading directly into the theater at multiple levels. Above the theater lobby levels, the new tower, likely residential, would continue to rise, with larger floors possible by cantilevering over the Merriam Theater itself.

The hall — with its richly colored murals and decorative plaster work — would undergo a restoration, backstage rigging and other equipment would be updated, and new seating installed. The project would “take the bones of a handsome theater of its period and revitalize it for the next hundred years,” said Richard Maimon, partner at the architecture firm KieranTimberlake, which created the scheme.

“Right now we have a number of artists that just won’t perform there because of the condition of the theater,” so a renovation would provide “the chance for us to increase the interest,” says Kimmel Center president Anne Ewers.

One attractive aspect of the plan is the prospect that the Kimmel might not have to seek big money from a donor community already being solicited for major campaigns for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and other institutions. The Kimmel sees potential revenue sources in selling air rights for a tower over the Merriam, as well as rights to naming the tower and renaming the theater.

How much revenue?

“It all depends on negotiations with the developers,” says Ewers, adding that state money might also be sought. “A lot will depend on what we figure out in terms of what we’re going to do and what the price tag is going to be. But certainly there are some great revenue opportunities in the naming and air rights and the relationship we work out with the developer.”

There is much to do before such a plan could proceed. Aside from seeking proposals from developers, set to begin this week, the Kimmel has retained a series of consultants to solicit opinions from various constituents — neighbors, the arts community, and the general public. A public meeting is being planned for late September to air thoughts and concerns, and the Kimmel hopes developers might bring other proposals, such as mixed-use ideas for the building connecting the theater to the street.

“We’re coming to the nexus of a conversation between the development community and the public to come to a place where we can by the end of this year have more definitive plans to move forward,” said Ross S. Richards, Kimmel senior vice president of facilities and operations. “The venue needs a lot of work, and this is our opportunity to get it right for the long-term.”

Camera icon ( MARGO REED / Staff Photographer
The Kimmel Center bought the Merriam Theater in November as part of a plan to expand its campus.

The Merriam, which opened in 1918 as the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, spent many of its early years hosting shows before they opened on Broadway. On its stage, John Barrymore mused whether to be or not to be, and Mrs. Rittenhouse parried quips from the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers. Fred and Adele Astaire, Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers, Jack Benny, Basil Rathbone, Katharine Hepburn, Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, Eartha Kitt, Barbra Streisand, and Sammy Davis Jr. all appeared there. It was renamed the Merriam in 1991 after developer John W. Merriam, who had established a $3 million trust to help maintain the theater.

The venue had spells of Yiddish theater. Gamble and Huff met for the first time in an elevator in the building and struck up a conversation — and eventually much more.

“Al Hirschfeld was in the Shubert reviewing a play when he got the notice that his daughter was born, and did his first ‘Nina’ cartoon [hiding her name in the drawing],” said Christina Carter of John Milner Architects, brought in by the Kimmel to prepare an assessment of the building’s history, architectural features, and changes over time.

Cognizant of the Merriam’s tradition of booking shows geared toward African American audiences, the Kimmel has retained a consultant to help determine ways to recognize that aspect of the hall’s heritage.

“In my lifetime, it has always been a venue of access to the African American community in particular,” said Erica Atwood, who will solicit ideas from Merriam patrons and others “and have them decide how they want the history to be represented. It could a special museum, could be something in the lobby, it could be some interactive projection that is there, it could be making sure the programming is reflective of the demographics of the city,” she said.

Demolition of the front building may not draw any major historic-preservation concerns. Although the structure closer to Broad Street was built at the same time as and adjacent to the theater, the façade has been altered several times — first in a modern, then faux-historical, aesthetic.

Camera icon Shubert Organization Archives, Philadelphia Athenaeum, KieranTimberlake
Through the years, the facade of the theater now known as the Merriam has changed, seen here in its 1917 design, 1918 as built, and after alterations from the 1970s and 1980s.

There is little of the original façade remaining, says Mary Werner DeNadai, historic preservation architect from John Milner Architects and chair of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. The theater’s interior, on the other hand, is remarkably well-preserved, and the prospect of ensuring its continued care and use is being seen as well worth the price of losing its bastardized frontispiece.

“It’s one of the most important historic resources in the theater scene, one of the few opulent theaters with its interior intact,” said Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance. “To have the Kimmel committed to restoring and preserving that — we would think that’s great.”

Camera icon KieranTimberlake
The Merriam Theater, whose interior would be preserved and seating reconfigured under a plan being pursued by the Kimmel Center.

Although Philadelphia has plenty of downtown halls, the Merriam Theater is considered a prize because of its prime location and its medium size. With 1,761 seats, it is smaller than Verizon Hall or the Academy of Music and larger than the Perelman Theater, making it ideal for certain events. This coming season, Merriam shows include appearances by singer-songwriter Lila Downs, musical polymath Ludovico Einaudi, comedian Paula Poundstone, Juan de Marcos and the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Pennsylvania Ballet, Stomp, and a show drawn from PBS’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

Audiences often praise the roster of presentations that cater to specific niches. The audience experience, however, is less than ideal. Access to seats, especially to balcony and family circle seating, is difficult — sometimes requiring patrons to walk through offices to get to their spots — and seating is cramped.

One current problem is that the floor levels don’t align from the front building to the theater building.

“Plan to avoid the Merriam Theater in the future,” wrote one Yelp reviewer, echoing many others. “I’ve only been there for 3 shows and yesterday was by far the worst experience, thinking that my previous experience could not get any worse. I was WRONG!!! I was in the center front balcony and could not move my knees… Please update this beautiful old theater.”

Knees will be freed. The Kimmel knows it must renovate with wider seats and give patrons more room. New rows formed by putting 36 inches between seats from the current 29 inches seems likely. One option for seating is a flexible system that can change, over about 30 minutes, from a typical proscenium configuration to a flat floor at orchestra level, or a flat floor at the same level as the stage. That kind of system, with each row on its own rider that can fold down to make a floor, would require excavating down one level.

The seat count would change, and could range from 1,401 to about 2,000 through a combination of patrons seated and standing. The flexibility would increase the kinds and numbers of concerts and events the Kimmel could bring to the theater, Ewers said. Cabaret shows with cocktail tables and rock shows with standing room are two that come to mind.

Theater rigging and sound systems will need to be replaced. The stage may be slightly widened. Acoustics require improvement.

The dressing rooms cry out for modernization. They currently exist in former stables that were only “lightly renovated,” says Maimon.

How lightly? “The horse was moved,” jokes Ewers.

Maimon describes a newly configured building that gives theatergoers a different kind of experience: a clear façade that allows the public to see in and out, a double-height lobby, a grand stairway, the ability to access seats easily, modern amenities, and places for the audience to gather.

The extent of the theater renovation and ultimate price tag have not yet been determined.