A decade ago, when many people assumed that Apple computers would wind up an evolutionary dead end, the company launched a simple ad campaign to promote a line of sexy, high-design tech products. "Think Different," it urged. Today, people stand in line to buy MacBooks and iPhones.
Chestnut Street's Boyd Theater, a jaunty Jazz Age movie palace, was similarly relegated to history's dust heap. People said it was too big, too run-down. Forsaken by its owner, the building was put on the critical list this year by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The conventional wisdom said it couldn't be saved.
So it's Philadelphia's good fortune that the Boyd found a buyer who did "Think Different" - developer Hal Wheeler and his company, ARCWheeler. Rather than repeat previous failed efforts to turn the 1928 movie house into a Broadway-style theater, he approached the problem in a new way. Wheeler's $130 million plan for the Boyd is a game-changer, not just for the old theater, but for neighboring Sansom Street.
The proposal, which Wheeler will present next week to the city's Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Adjustment, calls for a glittering, multicolored hotel tower and events space to rise on a surface lot behind the theater, with a facade facing Sansom Street.
Instead of viewing it as a hard-luck case that needs to be rescued, Wheeler saw the exuberantly decorated Boyd playing the role of glamorous anchor in a major mixed-use development. Narrow, neglected Sansom Street, which the city has senselessly tried to downgrade to an alley for parking cars, would be recast as a quiet, elegant back street lined with cafe tables.
Like Apple's comeback strategy, Wheeler's concept for the Boyd marries a savvy business plan with a sophisticated design aesthetic. The two are so thoroughly interwoven that you can hardly talk about one without mentioning the other.
Having watched previous Boyd plans fail, Wheeler told me he was convinced that the theater couldn't sustain itself financially by offering only one type of entertainment. So, while he promises to restore the theater's colorful art deco details to their original glory, he wants to rearrange the 2,350-seat auditorium into a multifunction space with a variety of possible seating configurations.
The hall would be capable of hosting a corporate meeting on a Friday afternoon, a pop concert that evening, a Saturday night wedding, and a Sunday afternoon celebrity lecture. In the off hours, Wheeler would sprinkle in films, dinner theater and television broadcasts. He also plans a trilevel restaurant to take advantage of the Boyd's fabulous Chestnut Street spaces. Flexibility is the mantra.
What makes it all work is the ingenious design and site plan by Wheeler's architect, Gary Martinez of Martinez + Johnson Architects in Washington. His assignment was to integrate the tower into the Boyd to create a synergy between the hotel spaces and the theatrical ones. But he was obviously keen to telegraph the interior glamour of the old movie palace onto the skyline.
The task was made more challenging by a Rubik's cube of a site, an L-shaped parcel with narrow frontages on Sansom and 20th Streets. Martinez puts the hotel on Sansom Street, wedging it into an open lot between the theater's backstage wall and the Kate's Place apartments. That siting establishes a new continuity on Sansom that should help make it a real street again, while tying the building directly into the theater.
Despite its back-street location, the 320-foot hotel should have no problem capturing public attention. Martinez's design gives the tower's downtown-facing eastern facade a dramatic curve and can't-miss pattern of colored glass. The hotel will swoop into the sky, a little like Brancusi's famous Bird in Space. Since there's no room to land the ski-jump curve on the street, Martinez lets it hover over the Boyd's roof. What might otherwise have been a dull slab now has real potential to become a sparkling signature.
The colored glass is a bit risky. Martinez was clearly inspired by the dazzling decoration created for the Boyd by Hoffman & Henon and wanted to communicate some of art deco's love of intense color. Choose the wrong shades or textures, though, and the large canvas of the east facade could look schlocky rather than glamorous.
The design already demonstrates that Martinez is judicious about imposing old motifs onto the modern tower. The most obvious art deco reference is the vertical masonry stripe on the north and south facades, camouflaging the elevator core. The stripe ends in a modest rooftop ziggurat, just enough to evoke the memory of the Boyd's old vertical marquee.
The more important stripe, however, may be the one that slides down the clear glass of the western facade on 20th Street and morphs into a long canopy.
The 20th Street leg is the site's most frustrating space. Sometime in the past, the sprawling surface lot on Chestnut Street was split into two properties. The line was drawn down the middle of the 20th Street portion, giving 25 feet of frontage to each owner. That toehold isn't big enough for the hotel, which is why Martinez located the hotel's driveway there.
It's 100 feet to the door - perfect for a red carpet, but not much else. Though Martinez tries hard to make the hotel walkway look nice, the space remains very awkward. It's also a good bet that the city will end up with side-by-side driveways, creating a permanent hole in 20th Street's commercial fabric.
That unfortunate breach is a good reminder of what happens when buildings are wantonly ripped from the city grid. The Boyd could have become a hole, too, had the conventional wisdom prevailed. There would be no new arts space and no new hotel. Just a big gap.