Curtain rising on Arden Theater expansion

The Arden Theater in Philadelphia’s Old City is ready to expand by half.

The longstanding theater company — an anchor of the Old City economic revival — will begin renovating a neighboring building on Second Street this summer.

The two-story, double-wide building – formerly the Classic Lighting Emporium — is three doors down from the Arden on Second Street near Arch. After it burned in the 1940s, the structure was rebuilt with an interior concrete shell. That shell allows for uninterrupted open space.

“We looked, over the years, at so many buildings in Old City, and so many of the buildings have a narrow footprint,” said producing artistic director Terry Nolen. “This has a very wide footprint. We are able to have a rehearsal space without columns. We are able to have an 80-seat rehearsal theater.”

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Right now, it’s little more than that concrete shell — and tape marking out where walls will soon rise.

At 22,000 square feet, the forthcoming Hamilton Family Arts Center is about half the size of the original Arden. It will mostly be used for education and play development, as well as housing the set shop. The original space down the street will be strictly for performances.

With drama classes, youth programs, and 450 shows a year, Nolen says the Arden is bursting at the seams.

“We’ve been looking for nine years. It’s been in the past three strategic plans. We looked at developing a shop in Fishtown six years ago, and decided that staying here made more sense,” said Nolan. “Whenever a building has come on the market, we’ve taken a look at it.”

The Arden Theater bought the building in 2010; since then, it’s been developing architectural plans and raising money. Nolen says the $5.8 million capital campaign for the purchase and renovation is 60 percent complete.

Construction bids go out next month, and the building is expected to be completed next year, in time for the Arden’s 25th anniversary.

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