From The Metropolitan Opera Archives:

1892: Music's Ruined Temple

Music's Ruined Temple: The burned auditorium of the Metropolitan Opera House.
From a photograph taken immediately after the fire.

From The Illustrated American
Vol. XII, No. 4: September
10, 1892

The Metropolitan Opera House, New York, the auditorium of which was destroyed by fire on August 27, has an artistic history of which its public-spirited stockholders may well be proud… At this writing it is by no means certain that the famous house of opera will be restored for the purpose to which it was hitherto devoted. Grand opera, as presented at the Metropolitan, has been a costly luxury for the box owners, each of whom contributed $3,000 or more yearly for its support. The loss by the recent fire would entail a tax on the subscribers of about $10,000 each.

From The Metropolitan Opera 1883-1935
by Irving Kolodin
Oxford University Press, 1936

1892 - Fire and Reorganization

The workman who dropped a cigarette in the paint room of the Metropolitan Opera House on Saturday morning, 27 August 1892, exercised, it is incredible to note, even more influence on the future of the organization than did any of the eminent singers who had been heard in the house to that time. The fire which followed brought about not merely certain essential and necessary revisions in the structure of the building. It marked the death of the Metropolitan Opera-house Company, Ltd., and the birth of the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company, which has ever since occupied a position of tremendous importance in the musical life of New York.

Though the fire was discovered at nine o'clock in the morning, shortly after it began, the stage was entirely aflame before the arrival of the firemen. In addition to the scenery which was being painted, according to the off-season custom, on the stage, the fire was fed by large quantities of discarded scenery which was stored in cellar beneath the stage. A fireproof curtain, designed to protect the auditorium from just such a mishap as this, was no longer in use, and the flames quickly spread through the interior of the house. The only protection to any portion of it was the ballroom floor over the seats, but even this was of slight value. Though the fire was extinguished by noon, the interior of the building was damaged to an extent estimated to be as much as three hundred thousand dollars.

The stockholders, in their various summer retreats, were frankly incredulous of the report - for had they not been assured that the building was completely fireproof? Sentiment was divided on the question of rebuilding, for the insurance aggregated in all only sixty thousand dollars on a structure that had cost a half-million dollars to erect. It would require twice as much merely to restore it to usefulness. Of those who were available for comment, Luther Kountze, Henry Marquand, Calvin S. Brice, and Robert Goelet declared themselves in favour of reconstruction. The most practical, if the least artistic view was taken by Henry Clews, who informed a reporter for The Sun: "The opera house property is a good investment. The ground alone is worth that much and the enhancement of values has been so great that I am sure that it has increased more than three times the original cost. In this way the stockholders are protected from loss in spite of the lack of insurance."…

From a photograph taken on Seventh Avenue during the fire.

On 26 September Abbey and Grau announced that they would not give opera at the Metropolitan in the future without a subsidy, and that all contracts for the ensuing year had been abrogated. Simultaneously it was announced that the Metropolitan Opera-house Company, Ltd., would not undertake the rebuilding, and that the property would be sold to satisfy the judgments outstanding. When the sale was actually consummated, the purchaser was the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company, a corporation composed of thirty-five shareholders, of whom slightly more than half were members of the defunct company. This represented those who shared a love of opera, a recognition of a "good investment" (in the words of Clews), and the money to indulge both.

Of the original seventy occupants of the two tiers of stockholders' boxes at the opening Faust, the following nineteen retained their interest in the newly formed company: Ogden Goelet, Robert Goelet, W. K. Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt (who now had two boxes), J. J. Astor, George F. Baker (sharing with H. C. Fahnestock), Henry Clews, D. Ogden Mills, J. Hood Wright, G. G. Haven, Edward Cooper (sharing with Henry T. Sloane), Levi P. Morton (sharing with George Bliss), S. O. Babcock, W. C. Whitney, Luther Kountze, J. Pierpont Morgan, George P. Wetmore, Mrs. George H. Warren, and Adrian Iselin. Of the sixteen others who completed the new company, the most conspicuous new addition - in terms of later history - was A. D. Juilliard. His fortune comprised the estate which gave rise to the Juilliard Foundation, now [1936] the chief support of the opera. There were also Perry Belmont and W. Bayard Cutting, both of whose families had been boxholders at the Academy ten years before. (Among those who withdrew from sponsoring opera in New York were James Gordon Bennett, William Rockefeller, Cyrus Field, John W. Drexel, James Harriman, James A. Roosevelt, and Jay Gould.)

The new stockholders marshalled themselves into the parterre boxes - thirty-five in number - which inevitably became celebrated as the Diamond Horseshoe, in place of the two earlier Golden Horseshoes. For the privilege of owning a box and a thirty-fifth interest in the building and property, each stockholder subscribed to three hundred shares of stock, at a par value of one hundred dollars per share. Each additionally participated to the same total - thirty thousand dollars [per box] - in a bond issue for the purpose of reconstructing the building. Out of the $2,100,000 thus raised, $1,425,000 was used to purchase the property at foreclosure proceedings. The stockholders also agreed to a yearly assessment up to an aggregate of $15 per share annually to provide for the expenses incidental to the maintenance of the property. In the by-laws of the company was incorporated a stipulation that "no transfer of stock shall be made except to a person or persons previously approved by the directorate." As long a the Metropolitan Opera House retained its position at the pinnacle of fashion, the directors thus constituted the arbiters for social acceptability in New York.

Actual reconstruction was begun on 14 April 1893. As finally accomplished, the alterations included: the elimination of the baignoire boxes, enlarging the present orchestra circle (a gain of three hundred and fifty chairs) and providing more room for standees; the removal of two plenum chambers at the sides of the orchestra seats, also increasing the space for standees; the lowering of both the stage and the parquet floor by three feet, eliminating the sharp upward slope that had formerly led to the parquet floor from the foyer; the addition of the omnibus box on the grand tier; the installation of electric lighting through the auditorium as well as on the stage. In general, the lower floor of the house has remained unaltered to this day; save that two sections of orchestra chairs that jutted forward (on either side of the orchestra pit) to the stage, were removed in 1906 to provide space for the musicians necessary for Salome. Four electric elevators were also provided for the patrons of the dress circle and the balcony, though they did not, perversely, extend to the point where they were most needed. The Family Circle (gallery) was still reached by a tortuous climb.

In addition to establishing the parterre row of boxes as the only socially significant horseshoe at the Metropolitan, the emergence of the Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company as the owners of the building, in 1893, settled the essential basis on which all subsequent opera has been given in the auditorium. Through the terms of its lease with each producing agency since, the Real Estate Company has reserved for its stockholders the use of the parterre boxes for each subscription performance given in the house in lieu of rental. Thus, while the operating company is deprived of the income it might receive, in prosperous times, from the sale of these boxes, it does not have the problem of meeting a fixed rental charge. It is the ramifications of this arrangement, superficially a simple one, which have complicated the recent presentation of opera in New York.

[The Metropolitan Opera and Real Estate Company went out of business in 1940, having sold the opera house and property to the Metropolitan Opera Association.]