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

NYC Metropolitan Opera House stage details 1966 Vintage Photography Sabrina Romano Untapped Cities
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. 

NYC Metropolitan Opera House Vintage Photography Sabrina Romano Untapped CitiesMet 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.”

NYC The Metropolitan Opera House 1914 Vintage Photography Sabrina Romano Untapped CitiesOutside, 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.

For more Untapped old Metropolitan Opera House, check out Disney’s Homage to the building and learn a detailed history of the old Met.

4 thoughts on “Vintage NYC Photography: The Original Metropolitan Opera House and Its Demolition

  1. Around 1949-50, I was 10 years old or so and was taking drama lessons with the Children’s Theater Guild. My teacher, Mr. lane gave lessons in one of the upper rooms of the Met. I remember the lobby with the elevators vividly as I had gotten lost while all of the students were rehearsing in an old theater in NY and the man who got me back to the Met where my mother and Mr. Lane were panicking, left me with the elevator man in the elevator room when half the police force in NY were running around in the lobby hoping I had gotten back to the Met. It was snowing and very cold out and I remember the whole thing very vividly. I now live in Florida but will always remember Brooklyn where I was born and especially NYC which I have always loved. Will never forget the MET and the day I got lost in New York City.

  2. Had to go up to the Family Circle’s standing room only once. Some guy standing there bravely started groping me ! So innocent I was then walked out and never went up there again. I miss the historical old Met, it had its very unique magic.

  3. What they (the powers that be) were allowed to do is criminal. It’s massive scale vandalism. Ditto for tearing down the Old Penn Station. Unfortunately, the people who run this city fail, time and time again, to see that a little part of this city dies when these works of arts are torn down. What would Rome or Paris look like if visionless developers were allowed to tear down those beloved palaces? Sound appealing to you? What’s built in place of these gems amounts to nothing more than “visual” pollution. Developers and our so-called leaders need to be held responsible for what amounts to “legal” crimes against the people of NYC.

  4. Standing room was right down next to the stage on the orchestra level and enthusiasts would clap and holler
    much to the disdain of the seated members of the audience. If you took seats in the family circle you would go up in an enormous elevator and could not access the rest of the house so no sneaking down to empty seats
    on the lower levels.

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