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Stage Two

Project: The Philadelphia Academy of Music, Philadephia, PA

Architects: Vitetta, Philadelphia, PA

Structural Engineer: Keast & Hood Co., Philadelphia, PA

General Contractor: L.F. Driscoll Co., Philadelphia, PA

By Nicole V. Gagné

In January 2007, one of Philadelphia's beloved landmarks, the Philadelphia Academy of Music, will celebrate its 150th anniversary. The oldest continuously operating opera house in the United States, the 2,900-seat academy has hosted such master composer/musicians as Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Rachmaninoff, Strauss, Copland and Stravinsky, as well as such legendary performers as Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas and Anna Pavlova.

Heartfelt celebrations will undoubtedly accompany the sesquicentennial of the building Philadelphians affectionately call the "Grand Old Lady of Locust Street," but one hopes that the 2007 observations will also include respects paid to her more recent anniversary: four years since the official 2003 completion of the building's epic renovation under the guidance of the Philadelphia-based architectural firm Vitetta. The work started in 1979 with small projects to restore the interior to return the building to its Victorian elegance. A larger project called the Academy of Music for the 21st Century started in 1994 and continued into 2003. It included new roofing for the stagehouse, reconstruction of the stagehouse, the addition of two small elevators and the addition of new mechanical and electrical systems.

Hyman Myers, chief restoration architect at Vitetta and partner in charge of the project, describes the firm's lengthy relationship with the academy, noting that until recently, the work had to be done during the summers when the house was dark. "We were the architects selected in 1979 to restore the academy, which was then the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra," he says. "The orchestra would be out of the building due to its summer performance schedule at Saratoga, and the building would be free for us to do our work. The idea was to restore its Victorian quality, and our summer projects entailed working on the interior – draperies, decorative painting, carpeting – all the way to putting in elevators, a job that took two summers."

"The academy had been privately owned until 1957 when it was purchased by the orchestra," Nan Gutterman, Vitetta's project manager for the restoration, explains. "They painted the interior white and removed the Victorian-era décor. Our job in those early years was to restore the Victorian-era interior. This was done in bits and pieces during the summers."

Several years into the project, during the installation of elevators in 1989-1990, a structural engineer from Keast & Hood Co., made a startling discovery when she was doing an inspection to prepare construction documents for work to be done during the summer. "She was up in the attic, looking at a truss," recalls Gutterman, "and she noticed fresh cracks, open check marks, in an adjacent truss, with no dirt in them. We knew we had to work very quickly to get the trusses repaired."

"It was decided that the cracked truss could be a potential immediate failure," says Michael Holleman, director of Vitetta's Historic Preservation Program. "To ensure that there would be no danger to anyone in the building, for the first time ever at the academy a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra was cut short at intermission and everyone was asked to evacuate the building." While the building was evacuated during a ten-day period in March, Vitetta and Keast & Hood's structural engineers oversaw the temporary repair of two damaged wood trusses over the auditorium. That was followed by further work during the summer of 1989 on a third truss. These repairs kept the roof safe until the final auditorium roof structure reconstruction could be done later, in the mid-1990s. "We inserted two small elevators into the building," Gutterman explains. "One was in a closet and the other one took over a small smoking lounge. When it became a non-smoking building, this room was no longer needed. Before this, people had to walk up more than 100 steps to get to certain areas."

"It was in the summer of 1996 that we actually cut holes in the roof of the auditorium, slid in steel trusses and rehung the plaster ceiling," she relates. "These supplemental steel trusses took the load off of the wood trusses." A derrick had to be mounted on the stagehouse roof so workers could needle steel sections, no more than 20 ft. long, through three 10x4-ft. access hatches. Temporary platforms were suspended between each pair of timber trusses in the attic space to give workers sufficient area to assemble the steel trusses – a task that relied upon bolts instead of welds due to the threat of fire, as even a high-speed drill could have ignited the old wood trusses.

"The academy is a wood building with brick bearing walls, and the attic where we were working was a very hot space all summer long," Myers explains. "Since 1857, it had dried out those trusses more than most other areas." Four steel trusses, each 10½ ft. deep, were set parallel to the eight timber trusses that span the 90-ft. distance between the auditorium's side walls.

This roof structure restoration was part of a $37-million renovation project that was launched in 1994 and known as the 21st Century project. "Previous to that time, we were maintaining the building," Gutterman notes. "The purpose of 21st Century project was to prepare the building for the next century."

Vitetta still had to confine its work, however, to the 105- to 116-day windows of availability during the summer. "The schedule was paramount," insists Myers. "We had to get in at a certain date, start exactly on time, and finish by a certain date because all the performances were scheduled years in advance. That was clearly the biggest task." Gutterman adds, "It was a lot of late hours by all parties, and lots of cooperation. Usually they were cleaning up as the orchestra was coming in for their rehearsals in the two days before opening night."

Remarkably, Vitetta and the contractors were able to accomplish an array of projects within these restrictive time windows. New mechanical, electrical and acoustical systems were added, and the auditorium's plaster ceiling was restored, along with the academy's original lower patron's lounge. This phase of the restoration also included reinforcing the stagehouse foundation. The walls around the stagehouse were underpinned by digging 3- to 4-ft.-wide segments under the walls and filling them with concrete, effectively creating a new foundation for the area. New storage space was also added under the stage. During the excavations the crews discovered the theater's original front-of-the-house stage footlights, along with such remnants of Victorian construction as horseshoes lost by horses that labored to build the academy in the mid-1850s.

Much of the project focused on rebuilding the stagehouse to suit today's needs. "The academy was built as an opera house, which isn't the ideal configuration for a symphony hall," explains Holleman. "There's a proscenium and the orchestra sits on the stage rather than in the same space as the audience, and the sound can get trapped behind the proscenium and up above the stage. The Philadelphia Orchestra wanted a new building that was built to be a symphony hall, where they could also do recordings with proper sound isolation from the surrounding city noises."

The rebuilding of the stagehouse included roof work, far more extensive than the work done for the auditorium roof. The wood trusses over the stagehouse were removed and a new steel truss and steel beams were installed in 2002. This undertaking would have been impossible to complete during the brief intervals of the prior summer work. Fortunately, the Philadelphia Orchestra relocated to its new home in 2001, which provided Vitetta enough time to do the job.

After the orchestra moved a short distance to the newly completed Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Vitetta's contractors, led by L.F. Driscoll Co., had six uninterrupted months to remove the old stage rigging, demolish the stagehouse roof and timber trusses and build a new steel structure, steel deck and concrete roof, as well as a new tech gallery and rigging system. According to Myers, "The quality and magnitude of the wood construction that we uncovered when we took apart the building was a big surprise. We uncovered huge pieces of timber which were so spectacular that we cried over their having to be cut up and taken out of the building."

Prior to the old stagehouse roof being removed, a temporary roof of plywood and rubber was erected in order to protect the academy's interior from rain while the work progressed. Over two-dozen hatches were set into three of its sides, through which new steel columns with bolted connections were inserted by a crane. Also during this final six-month phase, a 12-ft.-deep truss, weighing more than 22 tons, was set behind the proscenium walls. Spanning over 80 ft., it now supports steel beams that support the new stagehouse roof and rigging system.

"Once the Philadelphia Orchestra was out," Myers relates, "the academy had more open dates. Therefore, it was important to renovate the building so that it would be accessible as a performance venue for outside groups, including Broadway shows. Updating the lighting and mechanical and electrical systems and expanding the height of the stagehouse and the size of the orchestra pit were necessary to accommodate them." After the new stagehouse roof was completed in the summer of 2002, a mechanized rigging system was installed to replace the academy's venerable rope-and-sandbag rigging. "The grid of that sandbag-and-hemp-rope system had barely been able to carry the loads required by the Philadelphia Opera or the Pennsylvania Ballet," Gutterman points out. "There was no way it could carry the loads of today's Broadway shows."

By November of 2002, opera patrons were enjoying their first taste of the renovated interior of the Philadelphia Academy of Music with a performance of Carmen. Along with the glories of Bizet's classic score, the audience could also bask in the revitalized historic beauty of the academy. Holleman tips his hat to Myers and Gutterman for their tireless efforts in Vitetta's commitment to "preserving the building and keeping its wonderful old elements the stars of the show. There was a whole slew of other consultants that the orchestra brought in, from acoustic designers and mechanical engineers to lighting designers and theatrical people, but all of their efforts had to be integrated into the design and made to work in a way that would not radically change the appearance of the historic building." TB

 

 

 
 

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