The Metropolitan of today is little more than the tomb of the musical glories of another generation. The discoloration of the light brick and limestone exterior emphasizes the air of somberness that has enshrouded the massive building. In its heyday, 1908 to 1913, operatic stars of the first magnitude graced its stage, and wealthy and socially prominent Philadelphians filled the horseshoe boxes and the orchestra and dress circle seats.
Oscar Hammerstein came to Philadelphia in 1907 and built the opera house, then known as the Philadelphia Opera House, on the site of the former O’Harrah Mansion. Comment in musical circles at the time ran to the effect that “social Philadelphia will never go uptown.” Society’s playground was centered south of Market Street. Hammerstein proceeded with the new project, however, and when the doors of the house opened for a presentation of Carmen on November 17th, 1908, social Philadelphia attended in a body.
Philadelphia audiences responded whole-heartedly to Hammerstein’s presentations for two seasons. But, faced with a $400,000 mortgage which he saw no way of clearing, he abandoned hope of making a success of the house. It was taken over by E. T. Stotesbury as an adjunct of the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York, and the name of the theatre was changed to the Metropolitan Opera House. For three successive years opera was presented there each Tuesday evening with such luminaries as Enrico Caruso, John McCormack, Tetrazzini, Nellie Melba, Frieda Hempel, Mary Garden, Geraldine Farrar, Louise Homer, Antonio Scotti, and Mme. Schumann-Heink.
The structure was leased to Fred G. Nixon-Nirdlinger, theatrical producer, in 1913. In 1920, the lease was taken over by the trustees of Lu Lu Temple, Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. In order to accommodate Morris Gest’s production, The Miracle, in the winter of 1926 and 1927, the theatre was redecorated to simulate a cathedral. Evangelistic services were conducted here in 1930, and it was used by the world-famous Freiburg Players for the presentation of their Passion Play in 1931. The stage is the largest of any theatre in the city, and the seating capacity of 3,791 is the second greatest.