Ceiling decoration, 1966. Image via The Library of Congress
Most would find it surprising that The Metropolitan Opera Management sued to have their own opera house razed but that is exactly what happened in the mid-1960s. The Metropolitan Opera Association already had plans to relocate to Lincoln Center and they feared the competition that might arise if a new opera company took over the existing Metropolitan Opera House.
Part of the reason the association wanted to relocate was because of the opera house’s plain, and what some called ugly, exterior. The opera house, done in the Italian Renaissance style, was even dubbed a “third-rate warehouse.” What the exterior did not hint of was the building’s lavish interior. The group of wealthy New Yorkers designed the inside to be more extravagant than the competition, the Academy of Music.
Front View of the Met, 1966. Image via The Library of Congress
The architect, J. Cleveland Cady was responsible for the design of the building in 1883. After a fire in 1892, architects Carrere and Hastings redesigned the lavish interior. They created a gold auditorium which included the largest proscenium in America at the time, inscribed with the names of six composers: Beethoven, Gluck, Gounod, Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner. The famous gold damask stage curtain was not installed until 1906.The two architects also restored its Diamond Horseshoe box seats where the Vanderbilts and Astors watched the performances, along with five thousand others.
Facing towards the stage, 1966. Image via The Library of Congress
Details of Stage, 1966. Image via The Library of Congress
Even though the opera house was beautifully designed, it was not a shoe-in to be designated as a historical landmark. Starting in September of 1965, before the building was demolished, a year long dispute occurred between the Metropolitan Opera Association, the New York City Landmarks Association, and a variety of composers, musicians, and New Yorkers who spent their time at the opera house.
The New York City Landmarks Association considered the opera house as one of their first buildings for preservation. Because of the opera management’s opposition and the questionable quality of the architecture, the landmark association voted not to preserve the building. Unhappy with the decision, New York City Mayor Lindsay and Governor Rockefeller formed the Old Opera House Committee with the goal of preserving the Opera House.
Met Street View, 1966. Image via The Library of Congress
In April 1966, the last month of opera performances, New Yorkers affiliated with the opera house were still making attempts to save it. Ten days before what would be the last performance, a group of composers, actors, and musicians made a final effort to save the opera house. They planned to raise $8 million dollars to buy the opera house from the Metropolitan Opera Association but the association countered saying they would make almost double that amount of money if they leased it to a development firm. During the last opera performance, on April 16,1966, the conductor, Leopold Stokoski made a final and simple plea from the podium: “I beg you to save this magnificent house.”
Outside, 1914. Image via The Library of Congress
Displeased with all the hoopla, the opera management sued and in August of 1966 the verdict was that all preservation efforts be suspended. In January of 1967, the Metropolitan Opera House was destroyed; three years later, the bland World Apparel Center at West 39th Street and Broadway was built on the site which still stands there today.
The old Metropolitan Opera House has become a prime example for preservationists of what should still be standing, along with the original Penn Station which was demolished in 1963. Had the Landmark Commission had more experience giving buildings historical status, maybe the opera house would still hold performances at West 39th St and Broadway. At least New Yorkers appreciated the opulence during countless performances before the wrecking ball came swinging.