Designed by Napoleon LeBrun and built between 1855 and 1857, it is the oldest opera house in America still used for its original purpose — but it may not have survived at all if it hadn’t been for the unstoppable Frances Ann Wister. In 1920, while serving on the Philadelphia Orchestra board and chairing its Women’s Committee, she was able to halt efforts to move the Orchestra to a new building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway and turn the Academy into a movie house.
Over the next twenty years, Wister used her organizing savvy and old Philadelphia family connections to save many cherished landmarks including the Powell House, Grumblethorpe, Second Bank of the United States, Deshler-Morris House, Uppsala, and Elfreth’s Alley. As Philadelphia’s first preservation activist, she and her women friends founded the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, and she coined the term “Society Hill” to draw attention to this derelict area with its remarkable Colonial and Federal buildings.
Many don’t realize it was women like Frances Anne Wister who pioneered historic preservation — decades before others stepped in. The Academy of Music reminds me of her story, and it’s a story that deserves to be told.