Outback in the City

Our Hip & Hidden credo is that we focus on residential architecture; one reason being that commercial buildings, by their very nature, are invested in attracting attention. In this instance we are on a fence of sorts. This original building was residential and is now a school and performance venue. Given its history, its life has had full and varied use as well as design influences.

This striking facade is actually a rear addition, on a narrow back street, among 19th century carriage houses that are now dwellings. The Second Empire main building, which faces onto another larger street – and which is what most passersby see – was a house built in the mid- to late-19th century by Furness, Evans & Co.; the interior underwent a few renovations by Furness & Hewitt as well as Hewitt & Hewitt, who added a decorative music room in 1902-03. After a makeshift stage was added in 1938 this complex property became the Academy of  Vocal Arts, and has housed a theater and school of vocal training for more than 65 years.

A two-story rear addition by architects McCauley/Sperr in 1981, then Otto Sperr Associates in 1982-83, allowed for partial demolition of an existing garage structure and created a professional chamber theater with stage lighting, comfortable seating and a performance space large enough for a 30-piece orchestra. And the result is this fascinating rear facade: a Postmodern stucco and tile structure with a jutting bay and double porthole doors (that parody the standpipes to their left). 

What draws the curious and intelligent eye are the points of green, the sly reference in its shape to the surrounding houses that are in normal scale with the street, and the opening at the top that lets one “see through” the building. All these elements try to deflect the mass and scale of the addition. The roofline shape is mimicked in the bookending gates, returning one’s focus back to a more human-scale street level.

Almost seditiously out of place among its staid and conservative neighboring structures, it refers directly to the backstage door of Art Deco movie palaces. Not only does it house a stage and sets, but also there is something stage-setty about it itself, something almost illusionistic (very Potemkin Village-y). Within its formality it is far-out. For what it is, and where it is, it didn’t need to have been so clever, but it is that sort of quietly bold thinking that not only typifies the architect but which also makes Philadelphia a hip and hidden haven of risk takers.

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