Avenue of the Arts


The Avenue of the Arts is the appellation for a section of Broad Street—from Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia to Glenwood Avenue in North Philadelphia—devoted to arts and entertainment facilities. The Avenue was conceived in 1993 by a coalition of public and private entities to attract visitors to Center City. Amid a decline in manufacturing, promoting entertainment amenities seemed like a sure way to revive moribund commercial areas and increase tax revenues. Rebranding Broad Street as a performing arts destination was part of the city’s broader push to bring suburbanites and tourists to downtown Philadelphia.

A black and white photograph of Mayor Ed Rendell giving his inaugural speech.
The Avenue of the Arts revitalization project was started by Mayor Ed Rendell in 1993. He was inspired after walking down Broad Street at night and finding it devoid of activity. (Philadelphia City Archives)

In the 1980s, South Broad Street was in the midst of a long decline. Massive nineteenth-century office buildings that had once housed banks and law firms sat empty, their tenants fleeing to newer skyscrapers and suburban office parks. Few street-level businesses remained. When he was elected, Mayor Edward Rendell (b. 1944) found South Broad Street almost entirely barren. “On a Saturday night in 1991,” he remembered, “you could walk the mile from City Hall to Washington Avenue and you wouldn’t have seen 100 people.” Although a handful of arts-focused institutions persisted—the University of the Arts, the Shubert Theatre, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts—they suffered from the broader decline in Broad Street’s fortunes.

Upon entering office in 1992, Rendell searched for a project that would help to revitalize the city—improving its image, spurring real estate development, and encouraging tourism. South Broad Street, which already had two redevelopment plans in motion, seemed ideal. Since 1977, the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation (OPDC) had tried to revitalize Broad Street by capitalizing on its existing arts facilities. OPDC created the Avenue of the Arts Council (and later, Academy Center Inc.) to direct its activities on Broad Street and raise funds for a new orchestra facility to replace the undersized Academy of Music. And in 1989, the William Penn Foundation had launched the South Broad Street Cultural Corridor plan, which aimed to bring several smaller arts venues to the area.

A Coalition Tries Again

In order to unify renewal efforts, Rendell took control of the nonprofit Avenue of the Arts Inc. (AAI) in 1993. The AAI brought together a coalition of pro-growth forces, including the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), philanthropic foundations, local businesses, and real estate developers. Its board also included Rendell’s wife, Judge Marjorie O. Rendell (b. 1947). The AAI attracted funding from the state, philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg (1908–2002), and dozens of local corporations.

A color photograph of the Wilma Theatre at night, showing the neon facade
Avenue of the Arts is home to contemporary as well as classical performing arts companies. The Wilma Theater is a contemporary theater company that performs modern plays and contemporary adaptations of the classics. (Photograph by B. Krist for Visit Philadelphia )

Initially, AAI focused its efforts on the blocks of South Broad Street between City Hall and South Street. It devoted $3.7 million to open the ArtsBank, a venue in a renovated bank building (completed in 1994); $2.4 million towards the Clef Club jazz hall and archive (completed in 1995); $6.1 million to build the 300-seat Wilma Theater (completed in 1996); and $24 million to convert the vacant Ridgeway Library building into the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (completed in 1997). AAI also poured money into streetscape improvements, installing new signage, sidewalks, and lampposts. In its first decade, AAI invested $378 million in the Avenue, with $75 million of that total coming from the state and $30 million from the city.

Meanwhile, negotiations continued over the Philadelphia Orchestra’s new home. In 1998, architect Rafael Viñoly (b. 1944) announced designs for a $203 million, 2,500-seat concert hall on South Broad Street. In 2000, the facility was renamed the Kimmel Center after philanthropist Sidney Kimmel (b. 1928), who donated $15 million towards its construction. The Kimmel Center finally opened to mixed reviews in 2001, $100 million dollars over its initial budget.

Extending to North Broad

a black and white photograph of the Edwin Forrest estate showing the house and the theater addition
The New Freedom Theater is housed in the former estate of Philadelphia theater legend Edwin Forrest. The North Broad Street landmark is headquarters to Freedom Rep, one of the nation’s most renowned African American theater companies. (Philadelphia City Archives)

In 1995, AAI announced that it planned to extend the Avenue of the Arts onto North Broad Street, promising to devote $60.6 million to the disinvested corridor. The AAI initiative specifically targeted African American cultural institutions, including the Freedom and Uptown Theaters and the historic Blue Horizon boxing gym. While the northern portion of the Avenue received far less investment than South Broad Street, several new residential projects opened in the 2000s, including the AAI-supported Lofts at 640 Broad Street and the Avenue North buildings. In 2011, the Pennsylvania Ballet broke ground on its new rehearsal facility, the Louise Reed Center for Dance, on North Broad Street near Callowhill Street.

By the 2000s, the Avenue of the Arts had proven to be a financial success. In 2012, the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance reported that jobs created by arts and culture institutions in Philadelphia generated over $490 million dollars in wages. The Avenue of the Arts itself, one 2007 study claimed, generated $150 million in earnings for its approximately 6,000 employees. Ex-Mayor Rendell marveled that “when you walk around [the Avenue] on a Thursday night, you see thousands of people on the street. It’s not yet complete, but it’s come a long way.” Those thousands of visitors spent approximately $84 million per year at restaurants and hotels along the avenue. Still, the Avenue was not an unqualified triumph. Tax proceeds from performing arts venues along the Avenue remained modest, totaling only $10 million in 2006, in part due to tax abatements and incentives the city had offered to attract businesses and developers. Once initial subsidies from the William Penn Foundation ended in 1997, the Arts Bank was forced to close. The Kimmel Center’s tenants, including the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Ballet, struggled to pay rent at the new facility. The Philadelphia Orchestra flirted with bankruptcy due to budget shortfalls and low attendance.

A color photograph of the Kimmel Center in daylight
The Philadelphia Orchestra is based in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2001 on the Avenue of the Arts. (Photograph by M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)

In the 2000s, AAI began to encourage residential construction that capitalized on the Avenue’s arts-related cachet. AAI’s partner, PIDC, held design competitions for several empty lots on Broad Street. Developer Carl Dranoff (b. 1948) won the rights to build Symphony House, a 31-story luxury condominium building at Broad and Pine Streets, in 2002. Its ground floor housed the 365-seat Suzanne Roberts Theatre, the new home for the Philadelphia Theatre Company. PIDC also granted Dranoff permission to build two other mixed-use buildings on South Broad Street, the 777 at Broad and Fitzwater Streets and SouthStar Lofts at Broad and South Streets.

These projects pointed towards the Avenue of the Arts’ future as a mixed-use corridor. As retirees and young people moved back to Center City, the Avenue added businesses to serve them. The historic buildings on South Broad Street never attracted many new offices, but they began to fill with other tenants—hotels, restaurants, retail shops, and apartments. At the same time, the University of the Arts expanded its own footprint along South Broad Street, with classrooms, galleries, and a performing arts theater. Organizations like Wells Fargo and the Union League opened small museums or increased their exhibit spaces, enhancing the appeal of the Avenue of the Arts as a destination area. Drawing tourists and regional visitors for shows, performances, and exhibits, and other entertainment, the Avenue of the Arts initiative sparked widespread residential and commercial development along Broad Street.

Dylan Gottlieb, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University, works on recent American urban history. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Forrest Theatre prior to demolition

Library Company of Philadelphia

Many of the performance and art spaces that originally lined Broad Street were demolished long before the Avenue of the Arts project commenced. The original Forrest Theatre was located at Broad and Sansom Streets and was jointly managed by two rival theater companies. In 1927, the Fidelity Bank, which owned the building the Forrest Theatre occupied, decided to demolish it. The new theater opened on Walnut at Eleventh Street. This photograph was taken shortly before the demolition of the old theater and shows workers getting ready for it.

Mayor Ed Rendell

Philadelphia City Archives

Edward “Ed” Rendell was elected the mayor of Philadelphia in 1991, running on a platform of urban renewal. During his first term he successfully cut the city's deficit, balanced the city budget, and lowered wage taxes, decisions that led him to be dubbed “America's Mayor.” As part of his urban renewal campaign, Rendell sought to improve the Broad Street arts district and restore the city to its former supremacy in the arts world. Previous attempts to revitalize the district in 1977 and 1989 met with mixed results. Rendell took the helm of Avenue of the Arts Inc., the company tasked with managing the revitalization project. Early improvement efforts spanned from the dedication of Arts Bank to the replacement of street lamps and sidewalks. The initial success of the project helped to generate new construction of both public and residential spaces, increase tourism in Philadelphia, and improve Philadelphia's image.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Broad Street housed many of the city's earliest arts venues and institutions. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was founded in 1805 as an arts school and museum. The original building on Chestnut Street was destroyed by arson and replaced in 1845, but as the gallery's collection grew over the nineteenth century, the decision was made to move PAFA to Broad Street. The new building, designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, opened in 1876 to coincide with the Centennial Exposition. PAFA became the vanguard of modern art in America, including hosting the first all-American exhibition of modern art in 1921, but its reputation declined during and after World War II. In 1976, the building was restored for the Bicentennial Celebration but it was not until decades later that PAFA regained its footing in the art world.

When the Avenue of the Arts project began in 1993, the academy was one of the few arts-related establishments remaining on Broad Street. As other venues opened in its vicinity, PAFA was able to rebuild its reputation. It now hosts important exhibitions in American and abstract art and continues to educate arts students. Having endured for over two centuries, it is the oldest art museum and the oldest art institute in the United States.

Academy of Music

Visit Philadelphia

The Academy of Music opened in 1857 at Broad and Locust Streets to replace an earlier opera house on Chestnut Street. The new theater was modeled on Milan's Teatro alla Scala and was originally dedicated to large-scale opera productions but expanded to host ballet, theater, and even political events.

Over the years it has seen performances by such renowned artists as Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Luciano Pavarotti, and Aaron Copland, not to mention Warren Zevon and Neil Young. The Academy of Music was one of the few arts establishments on Broad Street to survive into the twentieth century's Avenue of the Arts project.

Today, the Academy of Music continues to house Opera Philadelphia (formerly the Opera Company of Philadelphia), making it the oldest U.S. opera house to still be used for its original purpose. It also houses the Philadelphia Ballet and, from 1900 until 2001 when the nearby Kimmel Center opened, was home to the Philadelphia Orchestra. Restoration efforts have preserved much of the opulent nineteenth-century interior. (Photograph by B. Krist)

The Wilma Theater

Visit Philadelphia

The Avenue of the Arts is home to both classical and contemporary performing arts spaces. The Wilma Theater at Broad and Spruce Streets falls into the latter category. The Wilma Theater Company was founded in 1979 by Czechoslovakian theater veterans Blanka and Jiri Zizka. They began performing in a small 100-seat theater space on Sansom Street in 1981. Demand quickly outpaced available seating, and in 1996 the troupe moved to its newly constructed home on Broad Street, seen in this photograph. The theater is renowned for performances of both contemporary plays and modern adaptations of the classics. (Photograph by B. Krist)

New Freedom Theater

Philadelphia City Archives

Though most of the Avenue of the Arts' attractions are on Broad Street south of City Hall, the arts district more recently extended north along the avenue. This large Italianate mansion was constructed in 1853 as the private estate of actor Edwin Forrest. Forrest was one of the nineteenth century's best-known tragic actors and became the first American actor to star in a play in London. His later years were marked by scandals such as a deadly riot that broke out during a performance of his rival, William Macready, in New York in 1849. The riot left twenty-two dead and was rumored to be started or exacerbated by Forrest. After these scandals, Forrest all but retired to Philadelphia, and on his death in 1872, willed his home as a sanctuary for retired actors.

During the twentieth century, a variety of educational institutions called the Forrest estate home until 1968, when it was renovated into a theater space. Known as the Freedom Theater, it hosted an African American theater troupe and became a centerpiece for African American arts culture in the city. It was reborn again in the wake of the Avenue of the Arts project as the New Freedom Theater and now hosts one of the nation's most renowned African American theater companies, Freedom Rep.

The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts

Visit Philadelphia

After initial success in rebranding South Broad Street as the Avenue of the Arts, several new venues opened. The Kimmel Center opened in 2001 after several funding delays. It was built to house the Philadelphia Orchestra, which had performed at the nearby Academy of Music since its inaugural season in 1900. Within a decade of the orchestra's inception, there was already interest in a new performance space, as the Academy of Music was too small for the audiences it routinely drew. Construction on the new facility finally commenced in 1998. It opened in 2001 and in 2015 housed eight resident performing arts companies and has hosted numerous visiting performers. The building boasts a 150-foot vaulted roof, a 2,500-seat main theater, and two smaller venues, along with a cafe and a rooftop garden. (Photograph by M. Kennedy)

Union League Club

Library of Congress

The success of the Avenue of the Arts influenced not only arts venues but also other Philadelphia landmarks to develop new projects. The Union League Club of Philadelphia began in 1863 as a private political club to support the Union effort during the Civil War. The club's headquarters was constructed in 1865 at Broad and Sansom Streets. It now is a private club with 3,500 members. In 2011, the club opened a new museum space, the Heritage Center, that is open to the public. The museum showcases the Union League's history with a focus on its political activity during the Civil War. Across the avenue, Wells Fargo Bank opened its own history museum in the 1928 Fidelity Philadelphia Trust Building. These museums and other cultural projects broadened the scope of the Avenue of the Arts project.

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Related Reading

Adams, Carolyn et al. Philadelphia: Neighborhoods, Division, and Conflict in a Postindustrial City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Bounds, Anna Marie. “Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts: The Challenges of a Cultural District Initiative,” in Tourism, Culture and Regeneration, Melaine K. Smith, ed. Cambridge: CABI Publishing, 2006.

Hannigan, John. Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis London: Routledge, 1998.

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