A look back at the ‘Old Met’
Mark Byrnes reports for CityLab: The ‘Old Met’ In Its Final Days. A look back at one of the first failed preservation efforts in newly preservation-minded 1960s New York.
“Detail, Broadway elevation,” May 1966.
Shortly after New York City’s old Metropolitan Opera House opened on Broadway between 39th and 40th, the Real Estate Record and Guide called it “a good design robbed of its rightful effect through imperfect execution.” Eighty-three years later, conductor Leopold Stokowski pleaded with his audience to “help save this magnificent house.”
The ‘Old Met’ hosted its first performance on October 22, 1883, and after a emotional goodbye gala and testy preservation battle, was demolished in January 1967.
Left: Balcony facades. Right: North Oval stairway, rail and entablature detail, May 1966.
After surviving a fire in 1893 and undergoing two renovations (the last in 1940), the grand but imperfect Romanesque building designed by J. Cleaveland Cady had finally run out of time. Although known for its good acoustics, the backstage area had long been too small for a major opera company. In the early ’60s, The Metropolitan Opera agreed to move into the new Lincoln Center.
A general view of the auditorium looking towards stage, May 1966.
The preservation effort that ensued was one of the first to take place since the formation of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965. The Landmarks commissioners eventually voted 6 to 5 not to designate.
As written by Gregory Gilmartin in his book, “Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society,” and retold by the New York Times in 1995, the opera company, looking for additional revenue, leased the land to developers with the condition that the opera house be demolished. They also claimed that “any delay or alternative solution to save the old building, by delaying the lease payments, would doom the opera company itself.” Efforts to purchase and restore the building were refused. A 40-story office tower opened on the site in 1970.
“Family Circle standee area,” May 1966.
Before demolition crews arrived, the Old Met had its final event, a gala, on April 16, 1966. The opera company joined on stage one last time to sing “Auld Lang Syne” with the audience as a tribute to the building. Stokowski made his final, unheeded plea to spare the building.
One month later, the Historic American Buildings Survey, run by the National Park Service, sent a photographer to document the structure. The photos show the Old Met in its final days, offering a tour of one of the first (informal) landmarks to fall in a newly preservation-minded city.
The view from northwest of 7th avenue and West 40th street, May 1966.
Broadway entrance detail, May 1966.