Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Effort to save the Boyd faces big battle this week

Time is running out for the grand old art deco theater just off Rittenhouse Square.

Henry Hauptfuhrer (front), a Friends of the Boyd activist, is joined by Robert Blackiston (left) and Victor Ortiz, who all hope to keep the theater standing - inside and out.
Henry Hauptfuhrer (front), a Friends of the Boyd activist, is joined by Robert Blackiston (left) and Victor Ortiz, who all hope to keep the theater standing - inside and out.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

WHEN HENRY HAUPTFUHRER was a teenager decades ago, he'd hop a train into the city from his home in suburban Ardmore and spend Saturday afternoons in one of the city's grand movie palaces.

"We'd watch monster movies like 'Frankenstein' and 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' or those CinemaScope cowboy Westerns," said Hauptfuhrer, now 59 and a Queen Village resident. "Just being in the building was an experience - the sheer size of the screen and theater. The lobbies and auditoriums were truly beautiful, nothing like today, where all you see in theaters are curtains and blank walls. The air-conditioning was novel at the time, too. It was thrilling."

Since then, Hauptfuhrer has watched helplessly as many of Philly's historic movie palaces have fallen to demolition, redevelopment and modernization.

So when developers eyed Center City's Boyd Theatre for gutting, Hauptfuhrer decided to get involved.

Since the Boyd closed in 2002, he and hundreds of other history lovers have been battling to save the old theater on Chestnut near 19th.

On Tuesday, the battle promises to explode into war: The Boyd's current owner will go before the Philadelphia Historical Commission to ask permission to demolish most of the 1928 playhouse. Their plan: To raze all but the protected facade so they can build a posh eight-screen movie theater and Italian restaurant.

Supporters say the plan will invigorate a blighted property that has poisoned a bustling block.

"For years, there's been a hole in the street that doesn't look alive; it looks like it's been forgotten and nobody cares about it," said Corie Moskow, executive director of the Rittenhouse Row business association. "When it fills in with light and life and energy and people coming to Rittenhouse to enjoy another entertainment option, it'll completely change the complexion of the street."

But preservationists say the city will lose an irreplaceable piece of Philadelphia history that's notable for its stunning Art Deco style.

"It was a very, very important part of 20th-century entertainment and should be saved," said Howard Haas, a Center City attorney and president of Friends of the Boyd, who figures he's seen more than 100 movies at the Boyd. "Just preserving the facade misses the point - the Boyd's interior has the city's best Art Deco architecture. [The current redevelopment plan] is just a black-box movie theater. It can and should go anywhere else."

The Boyd was built in 1928, just a few years after the advent of "talkies." And although it was designed to accommodate the evolving moviemaking industry, workers installed a pipe organ and built a small stage and orchestra pit for vaudeville shows and silent films.

With 2,450 seats, it was among the city's largest movie palaces. First-run movies like "Gone With the Wind" and "Wizard of Oz" played there, while celebrities like Grace Kelly and Charlton Heston attended premieres in its elegant auditorium.

Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington were dazzled by the Boyd when they attended the 1993 world premiere of their Academy Award-nominated AIDS drama "Philadelphia."

"Oh, wow, a real movie theater!" Hanks reportedly marveled as he walked inside.

When the Boyd closed in May 2002, it was part of the United Artists chain and was known as the SamEric.

Since then, several preservation-minded owners have inched forward with plans to convert the Boyd into a venue for live performances, dinner theater or touring shows.

But high restoration costs led some to abandon their plans, while the Boyd's most recent guardian angel, developer Hal Wheeler, died in 2010 before he could secure funding to build the performance venue and adjacent hotel he envisioned.

Meanwhile, the Boyd has earned notice - and some protection - by getting named to various preservation lists, like the Philadelphia's Register of Historic Places. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Pennsylvania and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia also put the theater on their "most-endangered" lists.

"We're not saying the building has to be restored in a museumlike fashion and go back to its original use. But let's look at ways to sensitively adapt this building so that it can continue to be part of our city fabric," said Caroline Boyce, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

But good intentions and historic protections might not be enough to preserve the Boyd.

Florida-based iPic-Gold Class Entertainment, the firm aiming to redevelop the Boyd into a swanky metroplex and bistro, last fall filed a financial hardship application with the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Attorney Matthew McClure argued that preserving and restoring the entire theater would cost more than it could make in profits to pay for its redevelopment and debts.

The commission directed an independent contractor to examine the economics of it all, and that contractor - Real Estate Strategies Inc. of Paoli - wrote this month that "redevelopment of the Boyd is not economically feasible without significant public subsidies."

Another consultant estimated the theater, valued at $4.5 million, could require $52 million or more to restore to its original splendor.

IPic hasn't released its cost estimates for redevelopment.

Hearings on hardship applications are rare, with just one every year or two, said Jonathan Farnham, the historical commission's executive director.

Rare, too, are demolitions of historically protected buildings, Farnham added. The commission on average approves the demolition of about one of 10,000 a year, he added. (About 10,820 buildings are on Philly's Register of Historic Places.)

If the hardship application is approved, iPic aims to open its luxury metroplex in the summer of 2015. Moviegoers would lounge in reclining club chairs with pillows and blankets and summon wait staff to bring them gourmet grub just by pressing a button.

But if iPic wins, the preservationists have vowed to appeal. And an appeal could delay development by years.

"Places like [New York's] Radio City Music Hall faced demolition, too, until the public spoke up to save them," said Haas, whose group has picketed outside the theater and rallied supporters to email city leaders to oppose the iPic plan. "Once it's gone, it's gone forever."