A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a win for the arts in Philadelphia with the Association for Public Art’s acquisition of Roxy Paine’s Symbiosis. This week, I’m writing about a big loss for the arts in Philadelphia. While running errands in Center City, I stumbled upon a demolition in progress. I was a little curious, but when I saw beautiful Art Deco decoration and theater seats emerging from the shadows of twisted metal beams and torn wires, I became doubly curious. I knew this must be the end of some heart-rending story.
My research informed me that what I stumbled upon had once been the Boyd Theater, a grand Art Deco theater that opened in 1928. Were I not such a recent transplant to the City of Brotherly Love I surely would have known all about the Boyd Theater, since the question of its fate remained contentious for more than a decade. The theater was operational until 2002. It was set for demolition that same year, but was saved by a group of impassioned citizens who hoped to preserve Philadelphia’s last surviving historical movie theater.
In fact, many local citizens felt so strongly about the value of this historic building that the nonprofit organization Friends of the Boyd, Inc. was formed, with the goal of preserving and restoring the theater. To make a long story short, there were several changes of hands over the years, and the fate of the theater lay in those hands. The theater was set for demolition more than once during those years, and there were also periods during which the theater looked like it might survive. In 2008, the theater was included in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the eleven most endangered historic places. That same year, there were serious plans to restore the theater for live performance usage, but the man who was spearheading those plans died unexpectedly. The Boyd Theater ultimately died with him, once and for all, despite vocal and active struggles to save it.
By late 2014, the theater changed hands for the last time. Demolition began in March of this year and remains ongoing. The once grand theater will make way for a new multi-story-apartment-over-commercial-something-or-other-building owned by Pearl Properties, “ a real estate investment company focused on the acquisition, development, management and ownership of residential, commercial and mixed-used properties in A+ locations.” (You can view the “demolition site plan” here.)
This is an unequivocal loss for the city of Philadelphia. There are a number of decaying buildings with no intrinsic value, as well as empty lots, on which Pearl Properties could build its behemoth. But money always wins, often at great cost to history. In any case, it’s too late now. As Philly’s Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger said, “I know there are a certain amount of people upset about losing the Boyd, but that’s done. It’s time to make something happen there.”
That’s what everything seems to boil down to—making $omething happen. To quote the classic children’s book/parable The Lorax “Business is business and business must grow.” Or must it?
See below for some photos of the theater, pre-demolition. The Friends of the Boyd kindly allowed me to use photos from their website.