Preservationists will challenge plan to demolish Art Deco interior when the proposal comes before the Historical Commission next month.
The Florida-based movie theater company, iPic Entertainment, has begun showing previews of its plan for the historic Boyd Theater building, and it’s a flashy, exciting package for a city sorely in need of new film venues.
Hamid Hashemi, President and CEO of iPic, has met with Philadelphia officials, neighbors of the Boyd, and members of the media to pitch his eight-screen complex of reclining leather seats with drink and food service, blankets and pillows, and free popcorn. His campaign is a lead-up to the official approval process, which will begin with a review of the proposal before the Philadelphia Historical Commission, probably in December.
The plan promises the restoration of the original façade of the Boyd, which opened in 1928 and was an Art Deco palace designed by theater architects Hoffman-Henon, who also built the city’s elegant, long-gone Mastbaum and Erlanger theaters. Hashemi’s plan also includes preservation of the head house, the exterior entrance area where tickets were sold.
But the preservation of the original building at 1910 Chestnut Street ends there.
The lobby that had been adorned in etched glass – it’s not known how much remains behind the boarded-up interior – the painted proscenium and murals, ornate ceiling, and chandeliers that illuminated the single, wide-screen auditorium would be lost. Hashemi’s company has applied for a demolition permit and has a hardship application before the PHC.
The preservation community has already begun working on its script for the battle against iPic’s proposal.
“It seems like an interesting business model and an exciting new amenity for the city,” said Ben Leech, director of advocacy for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, “and it would be 100 percent welcome on a vacant lot anywhere else in the area. We are opposed to the demolition of the auditorium and lobbies and will be challenging the hardship application.”
A statement on the theater proposal on the Preservation Alliance website says, “Philadelphia deserves a forward-thinking restoration for the Boyd Theater and its one-of-a-kind auditorium. Any plan that proposes the auditorium’s complete demolition is, in our view, a shortsighted approach to one of Center City’s most potentially transformative sites and merits the highest level of scrutiny” by the PHC, elected officials, and city residents.
The Friends of the Boyd, a preservation group that has worked for years to find a developer who would restore the building, inside and out, also issued a statement that opposes iPic’s plan “to gut the interior” of the theater. “Philadelphia would be the only large U.S. city without a restored, reopened historic downtown movie palace.”
Many grand theaters throughout the U.S. have been closed longer than the Boyd, “but they were eventually saved, beautifully restored and are again the economic anchors of their communities,” the Friends group says.
The exterior of the Boyd was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2009. The interior, however, was never designated historic.
No viable alternatives
According to Hashemi, the Boyd has sat empty for 12 years because it is obsolete and there is no economically viable way to use it as a single-auditorium theater. Previous owners and developers, including the late Hal Wheeler and Live Nation, never secured the financing or found cost-effective alternatives to save the interior.
He said iPic has looked at the Philadelphia market for 15 years. “You have a vibrant Center City, with no place for people to go to see a movie. So it’s a very desirable market,” he said. “But in the past, you could just not find the right kind of property.” Vacant theaters on North Broad Street or South Street would not work for iPic’s business model, “because you need a certain column width, you need a certain height. It’s not like you can walk into any other building.”
Costs of new construction of a movie complex on a vacant lot in Center City are prohibitive, he also said. “There is no way to take a piece of real estate and build a theater on it and justify the rents or acquisition costs. That’s why you don’t have any new theaters.”
When his company was invited by Philadelphia-based developer Neil Rodin to consider the Boyd property, “The idea was originally to go in and see if we could restore it,” Hashemi said. “But after spending almost a year and a lot of money, we realized we just can’t do it. It was not possible to go out there and keep the shell, which is falling apart, and try to retrofit it to fit eight auditoriums.”
Hashemi started in the movie house business in 1984 with a company called Muvico Theaters, which built six- to eight-screen theaters. He sold that company to Regal Cinemas in 1995, and then created Muvico II, which advanced to 24-screen complexes that recalled 1920s Hollywood architectural concepts: an Egyptian-themed environment, a turn-of-the-century train station, or a Paris opera house.
He sold his interest in that company and, in 2006, turned to a different concept: an enhanced movie-going experience. From his base in Boca Raton, Fla., he currently operates nine locations, including theaters in Chicago, Dallas, Austin, Seattle and Los Angeles. Six more locations are under construction in Newark, N.J., Houston, Bethesda, Md., and in California. “And we have plans to build another dozen locations from 2015 to 2017,” Hashemi said.
He describes a visit to an iPic theater as “a stress-free experience.” Tickets – which range from $18 for members to as much as $24 — are purchased online and all seats are assigned. The interior is like a “modern hotel lobby,” with mood lighting and soft music. In addition to Italian restaurants, a line called Tanzy operated by iPic, some of the theaters have lounges; the Philadelphia location would not.
The premium seats offer “super comfortable” leather recliners, he said, along with the pillows and blankets and complimentary popcorn. Food and drink service is provided in the premium section.
While most theaters try to bring in as many customers as possible and move them out as quickly as possible, the iPic experience “is about getting you there and keeping you there. The average trip to our theaters is four-and-a-half hours,” the company president said.
Hashemi also said he loves historic theaters and has learned a lot about his business from them. “Everything we do today is what people used to do in the 1920s and 30s. They used to create experiences. Going to the movies wasn’t just about what was on the screen. People used to get dressed up. It was an event, a night out,” he said. “What we do today is exactly the same thing. We create the same kind of experience, but a modern version of it.”
Hashemi would not disclose the cost of building his proposed eight-auditorium theater in Philadephia. iPic’s general council, Paul Safran, said the company hoped to receive final approval from the Historical Commission in January.
Neighboring businesses on Chestnut Street and residents have felt the negative effects of the long-vacant theater building, and they have expressed their support for his plan, Hashemi said.
Traffic and parking will not be a problem, he said, noting that the former Boyd had 2,300 seats and iPic would have a total of 744, with many seats filled by those living in the immediate vicinity.
“This is the best use for this property. The alternative is, it’s going to get torn down.”