One of the lamentable features of Philadelphia’s long-running construction boom is that good buildings are frequently torn down to make room for bad buildings. Everybody knows that they don’t build them like they used to, and yet many new residential designs are now so formulaic, so lacking in imagination and detail, that they can no longer be properly described as architecture. No wonder developers refer to them as “products.”
The Harper, the 24-story, beige-tone apartment building that replaced the technicolor Boyd Theater at 19th and Chestnut, is just such a product. The news release from DAS Architects calls the tower a “luxe wellness apartment experience,” but that is just a fancier way of saying the same thing. The Harper may have a glossy, high-ceiling lobby, a sprawling outdoor amenity deck, a restaurant-quality kitchen, an indoor basketball court, and fabulous views, but its exterior form — the only part that average Philadelphians will see — is poor compensation for the loss of the city’s most important art deco movie palace.
The Boyd Theater was most definitely not conceived as a product when it opened in 1928. Designed by Hoffman-Henon, one of the country’s top theater designers, the Boyd was the physical embodiment of a Busby Berkeley performance, enchanting moviegoers with its sparkling etched-glass murals, colorful geometric stenciling, and shimmering lights. While not the only great movie theater in Philadelphia, the Boyd was the last one standing in Center City when it was finally listed on the Historic Register in 2002.
Despite that pedigree and convenient location, the Historical Commission voted in 2014 to allow the Boyd’s destruction after its owner, Live Nation, argued there was no feasible reuse for a 2,400-seat theater. (Tell that to Eric Blumenfeld, the developer who reopened the equally capacious Metropolitan Opera House last winter as a rock venue.)
Live Nation promptly flipped the Boyd to Pearl Properties, which bills itself as Philadelphia’s “most prolific luxury developer.” Pearl, which also produced the Beacon and the Cambria with DAS, leveled everything but the Boyd’s Chestnut Street entrance and mirrored lobby. The Harper’s 315-foot tower now rises from the spot where Boyd’s auditorium stood and where movies like Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia had their world premieres.
If a city is going to sacrifice such a historic place to development, wouldn’t you think officials would demand the highest quality replacement in return? The Historical Commission certainly has the authority to impose high design standards. But its members have repeatedly acquiesced to Pearl’s requests to tamper with the Boyd’s surviving Chestnut Street facade.
First, the commission voted to allow Pearl to enclose the ticket entrance, which had been open to the street and flanked by two glass display windows, a move that will distort the public’s experience of the remaining portion of the movie theater. In exchange for that concession, Pearl agreed to faithfully restore the theater’s curved art deco marquee, in consultation with the commission staff.
That’s not how things went down, according to city spokesman Paul Chrystie. Pearl never bothered to obtain a building permit before starting work and never submitted its design for the marquee to the commission staff for review, he wrote in an email. While the restoration of the art deco window above the curved marquee turned out well, it is hard to believe Pearl could have been serious about the design of the sign itself. Where the theater’s name was once spelled out in jaunty neon letters, there is now a cartoonish painted outline. “The Historical Commission will ensure that the final work complies with the approval when a building permit application is submitted to complete the facade work,” Chrystie wrote.
The thing is, there are moments at the Harper when Pearl exceeds expectations. The building’s urbanism is first rate, partly thanks to a negotiated settlement with residents of a nearby condo building. The tower is oriented perpendicularly to Chestnut and Sansom Streets, and the substantial setbacks help reduce the shadows on Chestnut and 19th Streets.
Pearl also has been a whiz at getting tenants for the ground floor. The K’Far bakery on 19th Street is already getting raves. DAS designed an attractive row of storefronts on Sansom that will enliven the block, once dominated by the back wall of the theater. Too bad the main show, the old theater entrance on Chestnut, is treated so badly.
It’s the overall look of the building that disappoints. DAS went to great lengths to animate the facade, sheathing the surface in a mix of off-white porcelain tiles and brown metal panels. Pearl deserves credit for not building another scaleless glass sheathe.
But in an effort to give the surface texture, DAS seems to be trying too hard. David A. Schultz, the firm’s founder, said the architects chose the porcelain tiles because of their resemblance to stone, and they are indeed a big improvement over metal panels, which make buildings look like a tin of vegetables. DAS also recessed the windows slightly and framed them in bronze-colored metal. The details create a textured surface that reflects the sun and captures shadows, bringing the building alive.
Pearl must have run out of patience or money for such indulgences because the architects revert to flat metal panels on the northern third of the building. It’s understandable that the architects would want to break up the mass on the tower’s wide sides. But the blandness of the Chestnut Street facade, which wraps around to the east and west sides, makes you wonder if the architects forgot to design it. Weirdly, the white band that forms the crown at the top comes only part way around.
Like many tower designers, DAS may be hoping you keep your gaze focused on the ground floor. A rowhouse-size retail building on 19th Street was demolished to make room for the Harper’s entrance, and DAS has carved out a small, gracious entry plaza that doubles as outdoor seating for K’Far’s cafe. That enormous steel structure hovering in the middle of the space was the truss that once held up the Boyd’s massive balcony. Sliced into three parts, it shows up as a piece of decoration in the lobby. So far, there is no sign to acknowledge that it once did real architectural work.
It’s a bitter reminder of the perilous state of Philadelphia’s remaining theaters, observed Howard Haas, who founded the Friends of the Boyd and fought for years to save the theater. The Trocadero, a survivor of the vaudeville era, shut down in March and its future is uncertain. Renovations of the Uptown Theater in North Philadelphia, a storied venue where the great blues and jazz acts of the ’50s performed, have limped along for a decade. It looks like the Blue Horizon, also on North Broad Street, will go the Boyd route and have a new building inserted behind the facade.
The Harper, it’s interesting to note, was named for an early Philadelphia developer, James Harper, who worked around Rittenhouse Square. That seems fitting. At least Pearl didn’t try to pass off its newest product as “The Boyd Tower.”