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The Academy of Music: Where High Society and Music Mixed in Old New York

When the Academy of Music opened in 1854, New York City was just about to become the richest, most powerful city in the nation. It was, in fact, almost there.

With the construction of the Erie Canal (which opened in 1825), the port city at the mouth of the Hudson River benefited greatly from the proximity.

The city grew in marvelous ways in the three decades after its opening with a new Croton water system, expanding gaslighting, and a growing grid plan, pushing the city north up the island of Manhattan.

New York winter scene in Broadway, 1857 Eno, Amos F., 1836-1915 (Collector) Girardet, Paul, 1821-1893 (Engraver) Sebron, Hippolyte Victor Valentin, 1801-1879 (Artist); courtesy New York Public Library

The city’s old-money elites soon made room — with an upturned nose, naturally — for the new-money families enriched by both New York real estate and burgeoning American industries fueled by the growth of the railroad. The New York Stock Exchange, re-built after the Great Fire of 1835, was thriving with the nation’s booming (if often volitile) economy.

And so New York society, modeling itself after English and French elites, began importing high cultural venues in which to flaunt their love of the arts — and, more importantly, their money and station in the social pecking order.

The Astor Place Opera House, opening in 1847, had briefly been the center for upper-class entertainments, but the deadly Astor Place Riots a couple years later signaled the end of that venue.

Early photograph of the Academy of Music, NYPL

And thus New York got the Academy of Music in 1854. Located on 14th Street and Irving Place, the new music house was uniquely situated near both Gramercy Park and Union Square, both havens for the elite in the 1850s. (NOTE: The Academy of Music was only a few blocks north from the old Astor Place Opera House.)

Inside the Academy of Music, 1856, NYPL

The opening bill on October 2 featured a performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma featuring acclaimed Italian soprano Giulia Grisi. (America had very little homegrown talent in these days.) Underscoring its almost immediate dominance in the Americas cultural scene, the operas Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida, Die Walk├╝re and Carmen made their American debuts upon this stage.

The growing rival city of Brooklyn followed suit — had to follow suit, to satisfy its own elites who were situated mostly around the area of today’s Brooklyn Heights. The first Brooklyn Academy of Music opened there in 1861; after it was destroyed in fire in 1903, it moved to its present location. [More on its history here.]

Brooklyn’s original opera house was beautiful, sure, but it was no match in opulence for New York’s Academy of Music which was the largest opera venue in the world when it opened.

Interior of the Academy of Music 1856

But it designed to be so much more, a multi-purpose building which needed more space befitting the city’s growth. According to this announcement on August 28, 1854, “The New York Academy of Music will be used occasionally for concerts, balls, public meetings and theatrical performances.”

In fact due to its eventual neighbor — the headquarters of Tammany Hall — the Academy of Music would be the location of New York’s first national political convention in 1868.

Perhaps due to its many purposes, the reputation of the Academy of Music became tainted by rowdy “French balls” which took place here off season.

In 1883 Puck Magazine festively lampooned the ‘opera wars’ between the Academy of Music and the Met Opera house.

However it wasn’t until New York’s next wave of moneyed elites — its nouveau riche — opened the Metropolitan Opera House in 1883 further north that opera (and respectability) finally vacated the Academy of Music.

By that time, Union Square was the city’s destination for a more lowbrow entertainment — vaudeville! — and so the Academy welcomed that entertainment form onto its stage. But it could never recapture its glory, and the building was demolished to make way for a skyscraper owned by Consolidated Edison (which still remains).

The Academy of Music from the vaudeville years

But the name would not leave the neighborhood! A movie palace opened across the street (eventually owned by William Fox) with the name the Academy of Music. During the 1970s it hosted rock music performances and, by the 1980s, had transformed into the seminal dance club the Palladium.

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