First-time visitors often admire the striking interior spaces of the Academy of Vocal Arts at 1920 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA. Fanciful carved flowers and leaves, leaded glass transoms, rare mahogany woodwork, and massive carved pilasters evoke delight in many of AVA’s Opera Theatre patrons. Thanks to a generous grant from The William Penn Foundation, long-needed renovations and restorations were made in the first floor entrance hallway, the main offices and the Furness Lounge during the summer of 1996.
The house at 1920 Spruce Street was part of the development of the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood that began in the 1840s when the construction of horse car lines spanned the central Philadelphia peninsula and connected the area west of Broad Street to the old business district around Fourth and Fifth Streets, making the region west of Broad Street an important residential district.
1920 Spruce Street is a historically certified structure on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. A French Second Empire style home, it was built ca. 1868-69 by developer Ebenezer Burgess Warren, a director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and a vice president of Hahnemann College. In 1870, Warren sold the newly built house to its first owner-occupants, the recently married Elizabeth and Randolph Wood. Unfortunately depressed by serious financial losses, Mr. Wood died by suicide in a small room on the third floor (now the library), thus giving the house at 1920 Spruce Street justifiable claim to a resident ghost.
It is likely that the third owner, Joshua Z. Gregg, engaged the firm of Furness and Hewitt to design significant alterations to the first floor interiors. These include the fine oak wainscoting in the front hall, the receiving room and dining room (now the office-reception area), and the living hall and library (now the Furness Lounge). The dining room is especially notable for its rare and elaborately carved mahogony woodwork and leaded glass water lily panels over the doorways, all of which have been authenticated as the work of the Frank Furness studio.
In 1902-03, G. W. and W. D. Hewitt were hired by fifth owner Horace Brock to make changes including the classical revival detailing of the receiving room, the decorative plaster ceiling of the living hall, and the addition of the music room which today serves as The Academy’s theater. The theater features bas reliefs on themes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a mosaic inlaid fireplace, carved wooden beams, and seven oil-on-canvas paintings by Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle de Veaux Clements, students of William Morris Hunt at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
AVA has made its own modifications, the most significant of which was replacing a makeshift stage, installed in 1938, with a more modern professional theatre named in honor of AVA’s founder and first president, Helen Corning Warden. Those renovations, done in 1982-83 by Otto Sperr Associates, restored the room to its original dimensions and provided a versatile chamber theater with good stage lighting, comfortable seating, and room for a 30-piece orchestra.