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Sweet Sounds

'Oh, beautiful music, do not cease!' A seven-year renovation and restoration project brings the poetry back to the 146-year-old Philadelphia Academy of Music

October 01, 2003 |

In the lobby of the Philadelphia Academy of Music, the lights flicker as the crowd sets out to quickly find their seats. The auditorium lights dim and the curtain rises, giving view to a beautiful theater appearing practically unchanged, despite seven consecutive summers of renovation and restoration work.

For this 146-year-old historic landmark, known as the Grand Old Lady of Broad Street — not to mention the oldest continuously operating opera house in the country — this major, phased upgrade was no small endeavor, especially because the Building Team was limited to 120-day windows of time during the summer while the Philadelphia Orchestra, a former tenant of the academy, was on tour.

With contractor L.F. Driscoll Co., Bala Cynwyd, Pa., carefully coordinating the phased work, the project's highlights included upgrading all M/E and structural systems, rebuilding the theater stage, reconstructing the roof while preserving a 103-year-old ceiling mural, and replacing the theater's outdated sandbag rigging system used for scenery backdrops. The Building Team's ability to complete this delicate work within strict time limitations earned these builders and designers meritorious distinction in Building Design & Construction's 20th annual Reconstruction Awards.

L.F. Driscoll's Vince D'Antonio says coordinating the work to meet end-of-summer deadlines was a process of fitting puzzle pieces together.

Nan Gutterman, AIA, project manager for local architect The Vitetta Group, agrees: "We all spent a lot of time together trying to figure out how to make it work."

The most recent example of this skillfully scheduled coordination occurred last summer when the team took on one of the most challenging phases of the project: raising the stage house roof by 10 feet to replace the old rope-and-handbag rigging system for scenery backdrops, which had severely restricted the number of shows the academy could host each season.

In order to achieve this, the team installed a temporary roof made of plywood, which was chosen based upon its ability to handle minor loads, according to structural engineer Dean Doukakis, Keast & Hood, Philadelphia.

Next, the original roof was taken down. "The temporary roof was surrounded with removable hatches which we worked through to install the steel and new roof structure," says D'Antonio.

The only catch was that every time a hatch was opened, the auditorium was left vulnerable to the outside elements. "We all prayed for a dry summer," recalls Gutterman.

Because the situation required the utmost vigilance, one of the Building Team member's cellular phones was connected to the weather service so that the Doppler radar could be checked. In the event of an approaching storm, the hatches, which each took four minutes to close, would be shut.

Even though drizzle leaked in on one occasion, the team successfully protected the auditorium during this delicate phase. "This was a great example of the criticality of our work," says Hyman Myers, AIA, Vitetta's chief restoration architect.

Although the new roof was completed in the summer of 2002, preparatory work really began a few summers earlier, as the team first had to reinforce the building foundation in order to support the new structure. "The walls around the stage house had to be underpinned, so we dug three- to four-foot-wide segments under the wall and filled them in with concrete to create a new foundation," says Doukakis.

With a raised roof, the auditorium had sufficient room for the installation of a modern, mechanized rigging system, which has enabled the academy to begin hosting Broadway shows, with their complex scenery requirements.

In another sensitive phase of the project, the team set out to create additional storage space under the stage for the orchestra pit, requiring careful excavation.

"In the middle of this elegant theater with its chandelier and murals, we had to bring up earth, debris, and demolition materials," says D'Antonio. "And there were restrictions about what parts of the theater we could touch and get dirty."

Gutterman says crews uncovered the theater's original front-of-the-house stage lights, in addition to horseshoes worn by horses used in the theater's construction.

Yet another historical aspect of the project was the restoration of the theater's original lounge, known as the stage door canteen, where entertainers such as Abbott & Costello and Glenn Miller once performed for servicemen during World War II.

Due to the complex nature and length of the project, the team's working relationship was crucial to the project's success.

"They finished every summer on schedule and on budget, and maintained the historic fabric of the building," says George Shaeffer, the academy's project director.

"People come to the Academy now and find it essentially unchanged," says Vitetta's Myers. "They can't tell that major renovation was done, and to everyone in the audience, it just seems like the Academy of Music as beautiful as ever."

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