Academy of Music (New York City)
The Academy of Music was a New York City opera house, located at East 14th Street and Irving Place in Manhattan. The 4,000-seat hall opened on October 2, 1854. The New York Times review declared it to be an acoustical "triumph", but "In every other aspect ... a decided failure," complaining about the architecture, interior design and the closeness of the seating; although a follow-up several days later relented a bit, saying that the theater " looked more cheerful, and in every way more effective" than it had on opening night.
The Academy's opera season became the center of social life for New York's elite, with the oldest and most prominent families owning seats in the theater's boxes. The opera house was destroyed by fire and subsequently rebuilt in 1866, but it was supplanted as the city's premiere opera venue in 1883 by the new Metropolitan Opera House – created by the nouveaux riche who had been frozen out of the Academy – and ceased presenting opera in 1886, turning instead to vaudeville. It was demolished in 1926.
The Academy of Music has been described as "the first successful dedicated opera house in the United States,"  but it was not the first American building designed specifically for opera. That honor goes to the Italian Opera House built in 1833 by Lorenzo Da Ponte as a home for his new New York Opera Company, which lasted only two seasons before the company was disbanded and the theatre sold. Over a decade later, in 1847, the Isaiah Rogers-designed Astor Opera House opened on Astor Place, only to close several years later after a riot provoked by competing performances of Macbeth by English actor William Charles Macready at the Opera House and American Edwin Forrest at the nearby Broadway Theatre. By May 1853, the interior has been dismantled and the furnishings sold off, with the shell of the building sold to the Mercantile Library Association.
It was the demise of the Astor Opera House that spurred New York's elite to build a new opera house in what was then the more genteel neighborhood of Union Square, led by Moses H. Grinnell, who formed a corporation in 1852 to fund the construction of the building, selling shares at $1,000 each to raise $200,000. When finished, the building, which was designed by Alexander Saeltzer – who was designing the Astor Library at about the same time, and had previously designed Anshe Chesed Synagogue – was the world's largest opera venue at the time, with seats for four thousand arranged on five levels (orchestra, parquette, balcony and first, second and third tiers) and an interior height from floor to dome of 80 feet (24 m). It had a plush interior, and private boxes in the orchestra, but, perhaps due to newspaper editorials questioning the project's republican values, was consciously somewhat less "aristocratized" then the Astor Opera House had been – there, general admissions were relegated to the benches of a "cockloft" reachable only by a narrow stairway, and otherwise isolated from the gentry below, while in the new theatre many of the regular seats were relatively inexpensive. The stage's proscenium opening was 48 feet (15 m), with an additional 35 feet (11 m) in the wings, and a depth of 70 feet (21 m) from the footlights to the back wall. The height of the proscenium opening was 30 feet (9.1 m).
Its first opera season was from October through December 1854. An Italian troupe was engaged by US actor James Henry Hackett. The first season's repertoire was ambitious, and included Semiramide and The Barber of Seville by Rossini; Norma and La Sonnambula by Bellini; and Don Pasquale, Lucrezia Borgia, La Favorita and Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti. Later, it would host the American premieres of Aida (1873), Lohengrin (1874), Die Walkure (1877) and Carmen (1878). The Academy's opera season became the center of social life for New York's wealthy gentry.
But from its inception, the Academy of Music not only presented opera, but also served as a theater, and a meeting and exposition hall for a wide variety of functions, including political rallies, charity balls and science and industry fairs, among other events. In 1860 it was the site of a reception for the Prince of Wales. After the Civil War, an organization called the Cercle Française de l'Harmonie began using the Academy as a venue for masked balls, also called "French balls", in which the nouveau riche men of New York society would rub elbows – and other body parts – with semi-dressed prostitutes and courtesans, with little regard for public decorum or modesty. These balls were covered by the press, which did little to dim the enthusiasm or ribald behavior of the participants. One reporter wrote that women were thrown in the air and then sexually assaulted "amid the jeers and laughter of the other drunken wretches on the floor ... [with] not a whisper of shame in the crowd". These spectacles grew in size over the following decades: in 1876, one such ball was attended by over 4000 people. Feminist editor Victoria Woodhull condemned the sexual hyprocrisy of the French balls in 1873 in Woodhull and Clafliin's Weekly, complaining that the Academy of Music was being used "for the purpose of debauching debauched women; and the trustees of the Academy know this."
Still, it was the opera season that made the Academy the mainstay of social life for New Yorks "uppertens", and the oldest and most prominent families owned seats in the theater's boxes. This emblem of social prominence was passed down from generation to generation. The inability of New York's wealthy industrial and mercantile families, including the Vanderbilts, Goulds and Morgans, to gain access to this closed society inspired the creation of the new Metropolitan Opera Association in 1880. The trustees of the Academy belatedly attempted to head off the competition by offering to add 26 new boxes to the 18 the Academy already had, to accommodate the Vanderbilts, Morgans, Rockefellers who were behind the planned new venue, but it was too late to fend them off. The Metropolitan's new opera house at Broadway and 39th Street, twice the size of the Academy, opened in 1883. It contained three tiers of elegant boxes to display the wealth of the city's new economic leaders. The new opera house was an instant success with New York society and music lovers alike, and the Academy of Music's opera season was canceled in 1886.
In 1888 the Academy began to offer vaudeville. From January 28 to March 1901, a revival of Clyde Fitch's play Barbara Frietchie appeared there. The venue was rented by labor organizations in the early 1900s and used to stage rallies. In 1926 it was demolished, along with its neighbor Tammany Hall, for the construction of the Consolidated Edison Company Building.
Across 14th Street from the site of the opera house, a movie theatre opened in 1927 which took the name the Academy of Music. It was built as a 3,000-seat deluxe movie palace by movie mogul William Fox, and was designed by Thomas W. Lamb. It served as a venue for rock concerts in the 1970s, and in 1985 became the Palladium nightclub, designed by Arata Isozaki. The theater was bought and demolished by New York University, and replaced by the present Palladium Residence Hall, which opened in 2001.
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- Burrows & Wallace, p.765
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- White & Willensky
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- White, Norval & Willensky, Elliot (2000). AIA Guide to New York City (4th ed.). New York: Three Rivers Press. ISBN 978-0-8129-3107-5.
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