A glistening modern jewel is envisioned as a new hub for theater, music, and dance in the heart of Penn’s campus for West Philadelphia — and all of Philadelphia.
And now the soaring space may soon become a reality.
On Monday, the University of Pennsylvania announced it will build a new 3,100 square-foot theater to adjoin the Annenberg Center, a glitzy venue with a glimmering glass facade, towering ceilings and walls that open up onto Annenberg Center plaza for both indoor and outdoor shows .
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The new theater represents the cornerstone project of a $25 million capital renovation plan at expanding the historic headquarters of Penn Live Arts into a more flexible and inviting space for students, residents, and the 80,000 guests and members who attend shows, said Christopher Gruits, executive and artistic director of Penn Live Arts.
“This is really one of the biggest moments for Penn Performing Arts in the last 50 years,” Gruits said Monday, after Penn issued a news release on the new theatre, which will be named for Stuart Weitzman, the 1963 Wharton graduate who founded the iconic shoe company and fashion brand, and who made an undisclosed gift for the theater.
“Naming the theater for Stuart honors his enduring commitment to Penn students, his love of performing arts, and our shared desire to make the performing arts even more visible and widely accessible on campus and throughout the greater Philadelphia region,” said Penn president Liz Magill .
Weitzman, 77, who is retired and lives in Connecticut, is also the namesake of the university’s design school. He was not available for comment Monday.
In 2015, he sold his famous shoe brand for $530 million in cash to Coach. For years, he volunteered on campus as an educator, teaching a course on entrepreneurship is open to all students.
“I’m getting out of it as much as they are,” he told The Inquirer in 2019.
In 2021, the National Museum of American Jewish History, at Fifth and Market Streets, renamed itself the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History after it received a gift from the shoe entrepreneur allowing it to wipe out its construction debt and purchase its own building.
» READ MORE: Gift from Stuart Weitzman allows Jewish history museum, fresh out of bankruptcy, to buy its own building
Besides the new theater space — which Gruits said he hopes will be completed by fall 2025 — the initial phase of the capital plan calls for the Annenberg’s Montgomery Theater to be renovated into a state-of-the art film center, as well for an expanded campus plaza and entranceway. Later phases will focus on a new atrium and entranceway for Walnut Street. In all, the renovations aim to transform the center — built in 1971, and now an iconic, if austere, example of mid-century modern “brutalist” architecture with it’s hulking, mostly windowless, brick facade — into a more inviting arts space
“A big part of this project is focusing on making the center more opening and welcoming to the community,” he said. “On better facilities and support for students and artists and better facilities and support for audiences.”
(Initial renderings for the theaters were submitted by New York architect — and Penn grad — Paul Westlake, Gruits said.)
While the theater will allow much more space for student needs — for everything from “table reads’ with visiting playwrights, dance troupe rehearsals to film screenings and chamber music concerts — Gruits, who joined Penn Live in 2016 after working at Carnegie Hall, said the school also will be able to better support its public programming and community efforts that send artists and creators into West Philly schools.
“We have a big commitment to dance, music, and theater” he said. “And the Weitzman Theater is going to allow us to really provide artists with a state-of-the-art, very flexible space — a kind of a blank canvas where they can realize their work across dance music or theater, and create new work for Philadelphia.”