The Boyd’s Demise and the Philadelphia Demolition Commission

As wrecking crews reduce Boyd Theatre’s once-grand auditorium to rubble, Community Contributor Michael Bencik offers this rumination on the Boyd’s demise and the layered failings of the city’s historic preservation community and commission to ensure a new day for this historic asset.

I stand here on Sansom Street, with a heavy heart, and watch as the auditorium for the Boyd Theatre is revealed to sunlight for the first time in its 87 years. Brick by brick, as most of the Boyd is demolished, we can see the beauty of Philadelphia’s last movie palace fade away.

The push to preserve the Boyd Theatre was never about the façade of the Boyd. I did not stand outside in the snow, rain, and blazing heat with a placard because I wanted to save the façade. It was always the inside that mattered – the 2,450 seat auditorium, with its ornate plasterwork, huge movie screen, and detailed mural to the “triumph of modern woman” – a rare theme in the 1920’s.

Stepping into this art deco movie palace was like stepping back in time to a golden age of cinema. Now, the auditorium looks like a victim of a bad plastic surgeon. All that was glamorous and beautiful – plaster medallions, gorgeous murals, and gilded scrollwork- has been hacked out. The rest is being knocked down.

How did we come to this point, and why? It was a roller coaster ride of different bidders, owners, and developers who all vied for a chunk of this real estate. It started with Live Nation, who began renovation, then suddenly stopped when their business vision changed. In the intervening years the great theater slowly withered away, a forgotten starlet from Sunset Boulevard. Then Rodin and Ipic, decided to make a great movie house again, building eight luxury theaters by destroying the old one.

The battle for the Boyd ended up in the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s hands. The Historical Commission’s job is to protect historic properties in the city, though in my personal opinion: They double as puppets for developers. When an owner of a house in a historic district replaces some windows, the commission comes down on them like a ton of bricks with fines. But when a developer wants to replace a historic building they are too easily granted a financial hardship.

Boyd Theatre interior
Boyd Theatre interior

The commission’s hardship hearing about the Boyd was a real circus, but it felt as though the decision was made before we showed up. When in the past has the Historical Commission not approved a financial hardship?

Friends of the Boyd, of which I was a member, were in force, filling the back of the room, wearing our Save the Boyd shirts. The developers brought out their plans, statistics, and diagrams on how there was no way to make money except to tear down the theater. One neighbor who ranted about rats and the homeless was allowed to carry on for double the amount of time afforded to expert witnesses. I went up to speak in support of keeping the theater but I was told my testimony was not necessary – the commission had heard enough.  

It’s “a win-win” said Sharon Pinkenson, who runs the Greater Philadelphia Film Office. She was once on the Boyd’s Board of Directors. Is it still a “win-win” for a new apartment building to go up in the Boyd’s place? No comment from Sharon on how that helps Philadelphia’s film community.

The Preservation Alliance came in with a list of experts, stating why the theater should be saved. They argued the theater could be viable, and stated many cases from other cities that had saved their theaters; including Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and my hometown, Detroit.

Howard Haas, President of Friends of the Boyd, testified movingly about the need to save the theater. He had spent the last 14 years of his life working with volunteers as well as developers to save the theater. He had an anonymous buyer who offered $4.5 million for the property with a guarantee to save the theater –  the same price Pearl Properties bought the Boyd for late last year. The check was already signed. 

The Historical Commission is too developer-friendly, and Mayor Nutter does not have a preservationist bone in his body.

We lost that day, and the next day jackhammers echoed out of the Boyd. The owners went right to work demolishing the interior of the theater. This was an act of cultural vandalism.

That “win-win,” turned into a “lose-lose.”  Ipic and Rodin backed away and the Boyd was sold to Pearl Properties. But who really cares now? The theater was lost the moment the Historic Commission dropped the ball.

Now as the Boyd is being wrecked you can see some hints of beauty inside. Mainly though, you see the horrible scars of what the work crews had already done.

So what can we do to stop these tragedies from happening in the future?  

First, we need to elect a new mayor who has preservation on his/her mind, who cares about the history of our city. Progress does not always mean new buildings. Even at this moment, Fishtown’s St. Laurentius Church and Spruce Hill’s Sloan Mansion are slated for demolition. In other cases it seems the city would rather pay the high cost of demolition before helping to stabilize or rehab old buildings, even if that would cost less. Is there a way to funnel some money to help preserve historic buildings in Philadelphia, so that the owners can fix them?  

Next, we need to have a balanced plan for preserving historic buildings in the city. Enough with letting developers do whatever they want to.

The Deputy Mayor for Economic Development is in charge of the Historical Commission as well as the Commerce Department. That is like having the fox guarding the chicken coop. Of course he is going to push on behalf of developers. There needs to be a separation of powers here.

It’s also time to fire the Historical Commission. They are not doing their jobs; they are not protecting our heritage. The commission is just a rubber stamp on demolition permits.

Finally, preservationists need a unified vision. Only then can we stop this rampant destruction, and fight to save more of our city’s treasures before too many more vanish.

I would like to think that future generations of children will not just see the reflection of their faces in glassy new buildings, but will be able to imagine what the city was like through out the ages.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal