The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), at the edge of Downtown Brooklyn in Fort Greene, is the oldest continuously operating performance arts center in the country. It is a world-class institution with venues in multiple buildings, presenting programs of theatre, dance, music, opera, and movies by highly regarded, internationally known performing artists and companies, attracting audiences from around the world.
The original academy, opened in 1861,
stood on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, now the site of a mid-rise apartment building (180 Montague Street). Built for the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, it had a 2,000-seat theatre and a smaller concert hall. Contemporary luminaries including Edwin Booth and Ellen Terry performed there, and music and theatre productions professional and amateur filled its stages for over forty years.
In 1903, an early morning fire destroyed the Academy and a good portion of the block. It had become a major institution by that time, and a push to build a new structure began immediately. The architectural firm of Herts & Tallant, which had designed the New Amsterdam and Longacre theatres in Manhattan, won the contract to design the Academy, and the current building opened in 1908 with a performance of the Metropolitan Opera starring Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar.
The new Academy had a Beaux Arts façade and two side-by-side main theatres, the Concert Hall and the Opera House with one grand lobby across the front of both. In addition, a grand ballroom graced the second floor. The institution thrived until World War II, when all attention and resources were given to the war effort. Afterward, the entire Borough experienced a decline as the returning soldiers married and moved out of the city to the new suburbs in Long Island and New Jersey. Attendance and programming at the Academy declined.
That ended in 1967 with the appointment of a new executive director, Harvey Lichtenstein. Under his leadership, the Academy slowly but surely returned to city-wide, national, and international prominence. The concert hall was reoutfitted as a full-fledged theatre and renamed the Helen Carey Playhouse, and in 1983, the annual fall Next Wave Festival began. This world-renown series features contemporary and cutting-edge theatre, dance, and music from around the world, featuring the likes of Peter Brook, Steven Reich, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Pina Bausch, Robert Wilson, and literally hundreds of other first-class artists.
The physical plant has blossomed, as well. The ballroom was converted to a black box theatre in the 70s, and then to its current use, the BAMcafé, in 1997. The playhouse received a makeover into a multi-screen movie house, the Rose Cinemas, also in 1997. The 874-seat Harvey Theatre (Formerly the Majestic, renamed for Lichtenstein) on Fulton Street debuted in 1999, and the BAM Fisher theatre on Ashland Place opened its doors in 2012. A brand-new space, the BAM Karen, is under construction as part of a new 31-story tall residential complex at 300 Ashland Place, across the street from the main building, which is now known as the Peter Jay Sharp building.
The rejuvenation of the Academy has spawned a growth or arts and arts-related organizations in the immediately surrounding area, and this section of downtown and Fort Greene is now an arts mecca, which in turn has attracted more people and other support businesses, including many restaurants and other stores. The entire area is in full-flowered renaissance, in no small part because of this great institution.