He was once an "undisputed king" of porn. But in his twilight years, he has recast himself as a visionary for a more vibrant downtown.

The grand plan of 87-year-old Richard C. Basciano collapsed in a cloud of dust and debris Wednesday when the botched demolition of one of his Center City buildings rained death down on a building below.

In an interview last year, Basciano talked of his ambitious plans for the 2100 and 2200 blocks of Market Street, where he planned to transform a decrepit stretch of nondescript buildings that included his shuttered porn theater.

Once redeveloped, he promised, the blocks would be the long-desired "gateway to Philadelphia's Market Street West."

When he looked back at his Philadelphia strip-show theaters and other adult-oriented businesses, Basciano was low-key. "I had several projects in Philadelphia devoted to the performing arts, always within community standards," is how he put it.

A high school dropout at age 16 and a onetime amateur boxer fond of striking a fighter's pose, Basciano has amassed a fortune - a court recently estimated his wealth at $150 million - and powerful friends, as well as detractors.

After the collapse, Basciano came under harsh criticism. Labor leader John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty posted a comment on Facebook blasting the "slumlord owner" of the site.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a longtime friend of Basciano's, and other allies say that kind of rhetoric is misplaced.

"He's anything but a slumlord," Rendell said.

Rendell said Basciano "had the best intention in trying to do something spectacular" on Market Street - a plan that includes razing properties on a footprint that covers 50,000 square feet of prime real estate.

For now, a key part of Basciano's promised gateway is under a judge's order - preserved so experts could examine it for an expected torrent of lawsuits. Funerals for the six victims of the collapse are being scheduled; the first is set for Monday.

There remain many unanswered questions. Among them: How did Basciano's company, STB Investments, end up hiring a demolition contractor who declared bankruptcy in March after just two years in business and who had a fraud conviction? How was the demolition itself entrusted to a man with a criminal record, a man now found to have been working with a marijuana level that rendered him unfit to "perform safety sensitive, job-related duties"?

His early career

Basciano has not granted an interview since Wednesday's disaster. Thomas A. Sprague, one of Basciano's lawyers, said Saturday that his client would not be talking because of litigation already filed over the deaths.

A native of Baltimore, Basciano earlier in his life was a district supervisor for the Baltimore Sun. He pleaded no contest to mail fraud in 1968 in a store-coupon scam, receiving probation. It was his only conviction, he has said.

Basciano began to build his fortune in New York City, where he parlayed his experience with newspapers by working in the adult-magazine trade.

"It was all legal, all within community standards," he told The Inquirer in an extensive interview late last year.

Over time, he built a smut empire. That led to the New York Times' once calling him the "undisputed king of Times Square porn."

His top venue was Show World, a giant porn emporium on Manhattan's 42d Street that, at its peak, drew as many as 4,000 customers per day. Among others, he was the owner of Adultrama and the Pussy Cat Showcase.

A partner in Show World was Robert DiBernardo, a reputed captain in the Gambino crime family.

In 1986, DiBernardo telephoned home to discuss his dinner plans, left work in his car - and was never seen again. Six years later, during the criminal trial of mob boss John Gotti, prosecutors said DiBernardo had been shot in the head on Gotti's order.

No one has ever suggested Basciano himself was involved in organized crime.

Basciano's porn business eventually yielded to the transformation of Times Square in the mid-1990s and the zoning changes that prompted it. But Basciano rode out the transition and collected millions by selling his properties.

By one account, Basciano began doing business in Philadelphia when he opened an adult store in a building owned by the real estate speculator Sam Rappaport. Real estate records are unclear, but they suggest he was becoming active in acquiring properties in Philadelphia by the mid-1980s, spending heavily.

In the city, Basciano forged relationships with an array of influential or well-known Philadelphians, from Rappaport to disc jockey Jerry Blavat to Rendell.

Though Rendell salutes Basciano, the developer and adult-movie businessman has been a bit of a political headache for the former governor.

In 2000, Rendell returned $21,000 in campaign contributions given to him by Basciano after the Philadelphia Daily News questioned him about the donation. A Rendell spokesman said at the time it was "inappropriate" to keep the money.

Nonetheless, in 2010, Rendell, as governor, accepted $12,500 from one of Basciano's realty companies and another $12,500 on the same day from Claudia Basciano, one of the businessman's two daughters.

Over the years, Basciano acquired and then sold some key real estate in the city. He has said he sold property important to assembling sites for the One Liberty Place skyscraper and the Independence Blue Cross headquarters. The state in 2006 paid him for land used in the Convention Center expansion.

Now, his Philadelphia holdings for development seem to consist mainly of a dozen parcels on the 2100-2200 blocks of Market.

Basciano also owns real estate in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Delaware, and elsewhere, according to court documents. He owns a condo in Philadelphia's Symphony House at Broad and Pine Streets; a condo outside Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and a house in Longport, N.J. He recently transferred the deed of his $1.5 million house in the Baltimore suburbs to his wife.

Acrimony and litigation

When Sam Rappaport was alive, he and Basciano were so close Basciano was almost a member of the family. Rappaport's two children called Basciano "Uncle Ritchie"; he was the godfather of one of Rappaport's grandchildren.

Since Rappaport's death in 1994, all that has exploded in acrimony and litigation.

Rappaport, notorious as a speculator who let properties decay while awaiting his payday, amassed a big real estate portfolio. Upon his death, Basciano became executor of his $58 million estate.

In that role, Rendell said, Basciano had "tried very, very hard to clean up all the slum properties that Rappaport had."

But two judges, presiding over a nasty legal quarrel in Bucks County Orphans' Court regarding the estate, excoriated Basciano's oversight.

One judge blasted him for "flagrant abuse" of his powers as executor. Another said Basciano had engaged in "a multitude of self-dealing transactions."

And Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, the nonprofit organization that has long worked to revitalize downtown, said Basciano, like Rappaport before him, held on to his real estate far too long.

Levy praised Basciano for "trying to move the properties on West Market Street." But, he added, Basciano has had a pattern of "slowing development by often asking for extraordinarily high prices for properties in deteriorating condition."

For more than a decade, Basciano's role as executor of the Rappaport estate has been the subject of the fierce legal battle in Bucks County.

In his early years as executor, Basciano gradually moved to obtain fuller control of the estate, ousting Rappaport's longtime attorney as coexecutor.

In the lawyer's place, he installed his longtime personal assistant, Lois Palmer. (He later married her after his wife of 56 years died in 2006.)

Rappaport's widow and children eventually fought back, suing. They won a major victory in 2002, when Judge Daniel J. Lawler ousted Basciano and Palmer as executors.

Lawler found that Basciano had abused his fiduciary responsibility by selling estate assets to himself.

That didn't end the litigation, though. In a ruling last year, another judge, C. Theodore Fritsch Jr., ordered Basciano to give back millions in assets.

In opinions, Fritsch was even more caustic than Lawler.

He said Basciano and Palmer had "betrayed the trust of the estate."

"Mr. Basciano evolved from a good steward to an opportunist and took advantage of his position," Fritsch wrote. "His personal involvement in estate transactions became overwhelmingly beneficial to him and his family, to the detriment of the estate and its beneficiaries."

Both sides have appealed the ruling.

No sense of nostalgia

When he met with reporters from The Inquirer last year, Basciano seemed contemplative. He had no nostalgia for his closed Market Street businesses: the Forum, his porn movie palace, or Les Gals, his peep-show place.

"I was fed up with the adult business. I never liked it," he said.

Basciano added:

"I was always conservative, being brought up Catholic. I could be a porno king, but I'm a good man. I never intentionally hurt anyone in my life."

at 215-854-5831 or mfazlollah@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Inga Saffron contributed to this article.