This has been a heartbreaking year for Philadelphia's historic cultural venues. Chestnut Street's Boyd Theater, the glittering survivor of Hollywood's golden age, is being hacked apart and turned into a development site. Developers have been granted permission by the Nutter administration to do the same to South Street's Royal Theater and Broad Street's Blue Horizon, as long as they retain the facades as two-dimensional tokens of their former glory.
That makes it all the more amazing that one important member of this grand theater crew has managed to escape the wrecking ball: the Uptown Theater. Located on North Broad Street, at Susquehanna Avenue, the Uptown opened in 1928, the same year as the Boyd, and was designed in the same exuberant art deco style. But unlike the Boyd, Royal and Blue Horizon, which all had their opulence hidden behind relatively restrained facades, the Uptown wears its colors on the street for all to see.
Many Philadelphia buildings from the 1920s were enlivened with colorful tiles, but the arrangement on the Uptown's facade is especially fine. Against a base of latte-colored brick, artisans layered on a frosting of glazed-tile mosaics in hues of rose, yellow and teal.
The Uptown was designed by Louis Magaziner, of Magaziner, Eberhard & Harris, just two years after the art deco style was introduced in Paris, for the theater operator Samuel Shapiro. He had Magaziner add four floors of offices above the lavish, 2,040-seat auditorium, in case the public's fascination with picture shows didn't last. But the result was a bulkier building that is as wide as it is tall.
Magaziner used the tiles to offset the ungainly proportions. Panels of stylized flowers alternate with casement windows, creating a checkerboard effect that animates the facade. He forces our eyes upward with delicate garlands that outline each of the five vertical bays. A swag of terra-cotta crowns each bay.
The brickwork is also unusually dynamic, with sections arranged in a basket weave pattern. The colors segue from tawny to honey to pale ecru. Two fluted terra-cotta columns bracket the three central bays, further emphasizing the vertical lines.
The Uptown operated as a movie theater until the '50s when Shapiro sold it to music producer Georgie Woods, who turned it into a concert venue. Until it closed in 1978, the Uptown was the city's premier showcase for black performers, hosting the likes of the Supremes and James Brown.
In the mid-'90s, the theater was acquired by the nonprofit Uptown Entertainment & Development Corp. The group has managed to stabilize the building by installing new plumbing and ventilation systems, according to director Linda Richardson. It also hired a custom tile-maker to restore the mosaics.
The group had hoped to lease the offices, as a way of generating revenue to repair the auditorium, but the plan was thwarted when the roof developed a leak. Richardson is now fund-raising to fix the problem. Although it will be years before we can watch a movie at the Uptown, it's nice to know that its vivid facade is still here for us to enjoy.
From the Susquehanna stop of the Broad Street subway, walk a few steps north to admire the Uptown's shimmering multicolored tiles.