January 13, 2020
American Academy of Dramatic Arts – Another First in NoMad
The first school dedicated to acting in the English-speaking world, The American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA) has its home in NoMad. The Academy was founded in 1884 by Harvard graduate and later professor Franklin Haven Sargent. It began its illustrious history at the Lyceum Theatre on 45th Street, born of Sargent’s passion for the dramatic arts and his belief that acting was a craft that could be taught and perfected.
Early students of the Academy were taught to sketch costumes and characters to help improve their memorization skills, imitate stylized facial expressions, do their own stage makeup, and absorb Sargent’s teachings on speech and elocution. But the overall curriculum was shaped by his vision of acting as the “pursuit of raw authenticity.”
In the 1963’s as the Academy grew, it moved to 120 Madison Avenue at 30th Street in NoMad, taking over the building that previously housed the Colony Club—New York’s first women-only social club and a landmark in the emancipation of women. The structure was designed by McKim, Mead & White, the firm responsible for several other buildings in our neighborhood at the turn of the century, including the now-demolished Madison Square Presbyterian Church, the second Madison Square Garden, and the beautiful Second National Bank at the corner of Fifth and 28th, now being renovated as part of a new hotel project.
McKim, Mead & White created the Colony Club in the Federal Revival style, and the handsome building is still noteworthy today for its unusual diaper-patterned red brick façade. Elsie de Wolfe, celebrated as the nation’s first decorator, acted as the interior designer for the project, which was completed between 1904 and 1908.
Once the Academy moved in, it restored the original space and expanded it to include multiple theaters, mirrored classrooms, and practice studios. Its continued success eventually drove the school to open a second, equally renowned campus, in the other heart of acting: Hollywood.
Despite initial doubts about Sargent as a pioneer of American theatrical training, AADA has become the “Cradle to the Stars,” nurturing the talent of household names such as Cecil B. De Mille, Grace Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Robert Redford, Christine Ebersole, and Danny DeVito. You can find a full list of famous alumni here or here.