Well there comes a time when I feel the need to veer off course on my travel blog to discuss something that is really important to me, and hopefully get the word out. The Boyd Theater closed a decade ago, and it would have little chance of survival except for a dedicated group of people trying to save the theater from demolition. A company called iPic based out of Florida has decided to lease the theater, but demolish almost all of it, leaving only the facade. They plan to build a new building with 8 smaller theaters, with bar and food services. The thing is, you can do this anywhere, you don’t need to do this at the site of a historic theater. You can build on a vacant lot, which there are many a few blocks away.
The days of 3,000 seat single screen movie theaters are over, no one doubts that. But the days of doing architecture like this are also over. If we don’t save these buildings there will be no examples left in Philadelphia. Let’s not forget that by saving the building and renovating it, you are actually also being “greener” by using less materials than building new.
The historic commission grants permission for the demolition of important historic buildings more often then I like to say. Then it becomes a big battle in court with appeals with preservationist that could go on for years. Stupidly, historic preservation law has a loophole that allows developers to demolish if they prove that it would be a financial hardship for them to renovate a historic building. Why do these guys come in to a neighborhood, buy a building that is designated historic, knowing full well they have no intention of restoring them, then they cry hardship? It’s like me buying a beat up vintage car, crashing it just to get the insurance money, so that I could get what I want. It ought to be criminal. The Historical Commission ought to find a way to reject demolition of the Boyd.
The Boyd Theater was built in 1928, by Philadelphian architects Hoffman and Henon, in the art deco style. The Boyd was among many massive theaters built in the twenties, each having their own unique theme, from Egyptian to Greek. Going to the theater was such an event that people would drive an hour to see a show there. The Boyd was one of the first theaters to have air conditioning. I had the privilege of seeing Mission Impossible 2 in this theater, and could not believe my eyes when I got inside. First you walked through under the large marque, which at the time said Sam Eric, into the lobby. There was actually a whole series of lobbies and foyers which you walked thru. The lobbies had huge sand blasted mirrors soaring thirty feet up. There were grand staircases going up to the balcony. You went through huge glass doors into the main auditorium, which was massive. Everywhere you looked there were art deco flourishes. The auditorium has space for 2,400 seats, a huge balcony, and a massive screen. Downstairs from the auditorium, the men’s and women’s bathrooms each had their own sitting room. I had never been in a theater like it.
At this time the theater was not in the greatest shape, with the previous owners not doing much to maintain it. The Sam Eric as it was called then closed down a few years later, due to the difficulty of filling so many seats. It was instantly put up for demolition, like so many other historic buildings in Philadelphia. I’m tired of seeing our history lost. I keep seeing the wrecking ball destroy homes, churches, theaters, schools, and other wonderful buildings that have been here forever.
I saw a flyer up on the front of the theater asking for volunteers to stop the demolition. I was unemployed then so had some spare time on my hands. I went to a meeting filled with many active community members led by Howard Haas, a preservationist who has dedicated a large part of his life to preserving these theaters. Living in Philly for a few years, I was just beginning to get an appreciation for architecture. Through the group I met all kinds of interesting people who dedicated their lives to saving historical buildings, and even designing new architectural gems. We started doing charity screenings to raise money for the Theater and also had demonstrations in front of the theater when it was threatened with demolition. I did two illustrations of the Boyd Theater for articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer to help raise awareness plus numerous ads for magazines and newspapers.
What we see in a theater is just the tip of the iceberg in these old movie palaces. I have been through every inch of the theater, from the catwalk going over the auditorium, to deep in the multi-level basement. To say it’s impressive would be an understatement. There are so many layers to this building, each with their own history and purpose. The projection room above the balcony originally housed huge 35mm movie projectors. Then there was another projection room on the first floor for when they switched to Cinerama in the 50’s. There is an orchestra pit and organ lift that are on elevators, stage rooms, dressing rooms, huge electric boards controlling all the lights, heating, and pipe organs. It seemed to go on forever.
That was a decade ago, and the Boyd is not saved yet. There were many near saves, renovation even started with a paint study and even a paint Mock Up that revealed the original dazzling Art Deco colors being done by Clear Channel. But big projects can be fickle, especially during a recession, and it fell through when Clear Channel decided to get out of the theater business altogether. During the renovation process we discovered murals dedicated to women, the original seat upholstery pattern, and the original fire curtain. The fire curtain has a gorgeous bright Art Deco geometric design on it.
After Clear Channel ceased work at the Boyd, Hal Wheeler took over. He developed the new condo tower off Rittenhouse Square. His plan was to turn the Boyd into a theater hotel complex, to save the entire Boyd including the interior, and add a twenty-story hotel next door. He was working to get the state to help in the cost, until his sudden and unexpected death caused his project to collapse.
These old theaters are one of a kind, with architectural details that will never be replicated, and have to be saved. In my hometown Detroit we have saved numerous historic movie theaters for live theater, and they are a strong part of the revitalization process in the city. I remember when I was young all the excitement over the Fox Theater renovation, which is still a very famous and viable landmark in Detroit. I think it’s important for every city to have at least one movie palace restored. If my hometown of Detroit has saved downtown movie palaces, why not Philadelphia?
The iPic deal is a sad joke. This company wants to destroy a landmark in Philly to put up a new movie theater that could be built anywhere. If you are not going to use the building, then why not build on a vacant lot. Even worse it is a group that supposedly loves Cinema, but has no appreciation for its rich history. We need our Historic Commission to do their jobs, and not stamp an appeal on grounds of hardship. It’s their job to save some of our history.
Help prevent this please by going to http://www.friendsoftheboyd.org/ and “like” the Friends of the Boyd page at Facebook and visit http://www.FriendsOfTheBoyd.org and add your name to receive free weekly email updates
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