The Philadelphia Historical Commission’s architectural committee today unanimously approved plans to install multiple 1930s-era LED signs on the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House on North Broad.
It was also revealed at the meeting that entertainment operator Live Nation has signed onto the project. There has been no commitment for a restaurant tenant yet.
“Right now, our focus is on making Live Nation happy,” said developer and partial owner Eric Blumenfeld. “But while we’re doing the facade, I want to give it some sense of identity.”
The design proposal by AOS Architects calls for four illuminated signs to be installed along the North Broad facade, including what the committee called the “football sign” in the center that reads “MET.” Another two, the most prominent of the bunch, will include a three-story sign on the side of the building at North Broad and Poplar, and a large billboard-like sign on top of the building.
The designers based their proposal on this historical photo of the building taken in 1937, when it functioned as a movie theater.
The Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House at 858 N. Broad Street was built in 1908 by Oscar Hammerstein I, the grandfather of Oscar Hammerstein II. Designed by architect William H. McElfatrick, it sat some 4,000 people and was the largest theater of its kind in the world. But after Hammerstein I fell into debt and sold the property, the theater went on to play many roles, from a movie theater, to a circus venue, a ballroom, and most recently, a church for the Holy Ghost congregation.
Although the Holy Ghost vacated the property years ago, it still owns the theater along with Blumenfeld, who last May revealed plans to return it into a world-class concert venue with a $35 million renovation. At the time, the tenant hadn’t been announced, but funder Billy Procida described it as one of the "nation's biggest concert promoters."
The architectural committee expressed concern about the number of proposed signs along North Broad, given the intensity of LED lighting and that some of them will be fixed and while others will be motion displays. They were particularly critical of the football-shaped sign, especially because it won’t serve as an entrance to the theater; the main entrance will actually be on Poplar Street.
Blumenfeld agreed that the sign was his least favorite, but argued that it is the most common one shown in historic photos of the building. “I want to fight for the football,” he said to the committee, “because it’s a long building. It gives it some personality and gives it a center.”
In the end, the committee compromised by suggesting the removal of another sign on the North Broad facade that reads “UPCOMING” on the rendering. The football can stay, they said.
The committee also suggested that the developer try to restore the building’s parapet if budget allows for it, and that the 10-foot-tall HVAC unit on top of the building be designed to be inconspicuous as possible.
With the committee’s approval, the design proposal now goes to the Historical Commission.
Also at play for the theater: An application for a $5 million RACP state grant to help fund the theater’s exterior restoration. The project description reads:
The building's historic designation will return the Metropolitan Opera house to its once opulent state along North Broad Street. The historic designation of the building, requires significant concrete façade work to bring back historic elements. In addition, the historic designation also requires significant customization work including custom doors, windows and glazing.
There are a lot of moving parts with this particular project, said Blumenfeld at the end of the meeting. But, he said, as the restoration of the Divine Lorraine down the street finishes up, all attention will be focused on the theater, which these days goes largely unnoticed by passersby.
“Right now, I feel like I’m the only one who walks this block,” he said. “My hope is by the end of next year, people will walk down the street and see that there’s life in that facade.”