Reckoning with the Boyd Theatre’s final bow

It looks like curtains for the historic Boyd Theatre, the shuttered Art Deco movie palace at 19th and Chestnut, and its case brings up tough questions about the political and public will for historic preservation in Philadelphia.

As PlanPhilly’s Jared Brey reported Friday the Historical Commission was persuaded that the Boyd’s owners and prospective developers had sufficiently demonstrated financial hardship. The vote makes way for a development proposal that would demolish all but the first few feet of the Art Deco movie palace’s Chestnut Street façade in order to build eight swanky screening-room style movie theaters that would be operated by iPic. The Commission’s decision came despite an 11th hour offer from an anonymous local foundation to provide Friends of the Boyd a grant for $4.5 million to purchase the theater.

Friends of the Boyd’s Howard Haas vows to appeal the hardship case to the Board of Licenses and Inspection Review because he believes the Historical Commission did not interpret its own financial hardship rules correctly.

But it appears things may be moving swiftly. Hidden City Daily noticed that a demolition permit has been pulled and posted on the Boyd. Inga Saffron reports that workers are inside the Boyd today, likely beginning demolition.

In order for the Commission to agree that there is a financial hardship, applicants must demonstrate that no owner can reasonably reuse or adapt the property for any purpose. In order to justify significant demolition the applicants have to establish that the sale of the property “is impracticable, that commercial rental cannot yield a reasonable rate of return, and that other potential uses are foreclosed.”

Commissioners who supported the hardship claim were persuaded that the applicants had met the burden of proof, and found the supporting economic analysis to be valid. But that question of whether or not a sale is “impracticable” rankles Haas and fellow Boyd preservation advocates who argue that there is a bona fide offer on the table for the Boyd.

Economic consultants on both sides of this hardship case found that the Boyd cannot be reused without subsidy. Friends of the Boyd argued that it would to pursue a plan with subsidies, though no other funding has been identified beyond the $4.5 million grant. By covering acquisition and some rehabilitation costs through public and/or private support, the theater could be able to operate as a nonprofit venue without a crippling financial burden. It’s was long shot, but it would hardly be the first historic theater to be reborn this way.

This issue of possible reuse by a nonprofit owner also brings up a broader question in this hardship case, presented most eloquently on Friday during testimony by architectural historian David Brownlee. He reminded commissioners of the purpose for the commission outlined in the city’s preservation ordinance, among them the duties to help facilitate the preservation of the city’s historic resources and to afford opportunities to “arrange for the preservation of historic buildings”.

Those broader responsibilities were echoed by commissioner Dominique Hawkins, the lone dissenting vote Friday, who suggested a short stay of execution to permit Friends of the Boyd to attempt to develop a viable plan.

“I don’t think 6 months to consider viable alternatives is too much to ask, particularly since the weight of this decision is final,” she said.

That suggestion was not dignified with much of a reply from her fellow commissioners, even though it may have been the last chance to buy time for real creative thinking, fundraising, negotiation, and planning that could revive this historic jewel and improve this block of Chestnut St. The commission’s unwillingness to consider a stay struck me as a close-minded response to a challenging, nuanced hardship case – most pointedly demonstrated when some commissioners questioned the last-second timing of the anonymous bid for the Boyd.

If there is a possibility of new life, couldn’t ownership by Friends of the Boyd be the opportunity the building has been waiting for? Once again it felt like Philadelphia’s typical desperation for development would cost us an irreplaceable piece of city history. The Historical Commission voted in favor of developers, as it has in other recent, albeit different but no less difficult hardship cases (see 40th and Pine, Episcopal Cathedral, Dilworth House, and the Church of the Assumption).

This case was a struggle for a few members of the Historical Commission. During the Financial Hardship Committee hearing in February commissioner Dominique Hawkins described the proceedings as funereal and commissioner Sara Merriman looked on the verge of tears as she abstained from voting. Yet during the Historical Commission’s March meeting, which focused for four hours on the Boyd Theatre’s fate, some commissioners seemed more interested in munching on their lunches than in the testimony being offered. It seems even the public stewards of the city’s historic resources may have run out of patience for the Boyd.

Are Philadelphians suffering from Save the Boyd fatigue? Neighbors testified that they have grown weary of the theater’s vacancy and poor upkeep. Some of the Boyd’s previous champions like the Philadelphia Film Office’s Sharon Pinkenson have moved on. Politicians like Darrell Clarke and Brian Sims are falling in line behind the iPic plan, calling it a good balance of preservation and development – because the façade and historic use will be restored while creating a new kind of movie-going experience to Center City.

Commissioner John Mattioni said for him the case was a question of the Historical Commission’s jurisdiction, which only encompasses the exterior of the building. Since the developers intend to keep and restore the façade, the most significant portion of the exterior, he would not oppose demolition of the remainder of the building.

But iPic plans to use the building’s façade as architectural ornament, like window-dressing for a totally new building. But the façade is not the Boyd’s most striking feature.

Over and over again commissioners were reminded to wipe the Boyd’s richly finished Art Deco interior out of their minds, but it kept coming up. The interior is a defining part of what makes the Boyd exceptional and what makes dreams of its restoration spectacular. It is what most folks can’t help but think of when they lament the property’s demise. 

In a 2007 study on interior designation, the Boyd’s interiors were cited as the building’s exceptional feature: “The true significance of the theater is its art deco auditorium, lobbies and other public spaces. Thus, the building’s interior, which is customarily open to the public as a requirement of business, is clearly its most notable feature.”  

Two years later when the city passed legislation enabling historic protections for special interiors, the Boyd was a prime motivation. But its interior designation was never pursued, perhaps in the hope that a sympathetic developer would care for the interior while not being over-burdened by the regulation. That’s partly why this case feels so difficult. Will the Boyd be a sacrificial loss?

Since the Historical Commission is unwilling to consider new historic districts these days, their focus is on individual buildings. New interior nominations should also be considered. Right now you can count buildings with designated interiors on one hand. But consider some of the significant public and semi-public spaces in our city that are not designated as historic. Among them: The PSFS building’s banking floor, 30th Street Station, the Free Library, Rodeph Shalom’s sanctuary, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Had the Boyd as a whole been designated, this hardship case would have been substantially different.  

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