Updated: Friday, January 31, 2014, 1:09 AM
Philadelphia's historic Boyd Theater is a building that seems to have nine lives, so its near-death experience this week may appear to be just another nail-biting moment in the perennial saga. It is not. This time, the gorgeous art deco movie palace - the city's lone survivor from Hollywood's heyday - looks done for good.
It's true that the Historical Commission's subcommittee on financial hardship did not rule Tuesday on a petition from the Florida-based movie chain iPic, which wants to replace the Jazz Age auditorium with eight modern screening rooms. That decision was put off until the full commission meets Feb. 14. But the Boyd's fate is such a foregone conclusion that another subcommittee went ahead and reviewed iPic's architectural designs anyway.
Preparing for the showdown, the commission did a sensible thing and brought in a consultant to evaluate iPic's plan to gut the theater at 19th and Chestnut Streets. Unfortunately, it came with the preservation-averse-sounding name of Real Estate Strategies, and used its 10-page report to tell us what we already knew: The 1920s building can't be saved unless it gets a big public subsidy. For just a buck, the commission could have bought the Nov. 22 Inquirer and read the same thing in my column.
The belief that the Boyd has to be destroyed to be saved has gained traction with several high-profile groups that had once stood by the theater. Both the Center City Residents Association and Sharon Pinkenson's Greater Philadelphia Film Office have endorsed iPic's plan. Seduced by the possibility of a first-run movie house in the heart of Center City, they have concluded it's now worth sacrificing the Boyd's most distinctive feature - its rippling, multicolored auditorium.
What they forget is that there is a reason this high-rent district has no multiplexes. Land is too valuable now for a single-use, big-box commercial building to be profitable. IPic can afford the huge site only because the Boyd's owner is willing to dump it for $4.5 million, half of what it paid seven years ago. By coincidence, another operator, Ray Murray of Theater of the Living Arts, unveiled a concept almost identical to iPic's on Tuesday. But his lounge-style movie house would occupy an old warehouse on Sixth Street, in the empty zone north of Vine Street - a far more affordable spot.
As part of the iPic debate, some have argued that the Boyd has become a blight since it was shuttered in 2002, dragging down the west end of Chestnut Street.
So, how to explain the retail revival that has happened there despite the presence of the Boyd's plywood-covered facade? There has been a rush of high-end clothing stores, including Joan Shepp, Knit Wit, and Nordstrom Rack, which is taking over the Daffy's building at 17th Street, largely because rents are soaring on Walnut Street.
Long the sick man of Philadelphia, Chestnut Street is experiencing a frenzy of new construction. How the Historical Commission treats the Boyd's landmark status will have implications for the rest of Chestnut Street, the only Center City commercial corridor that remains a parade of narrow, architecturally diverse buildings.
"Few cities retain such variety," noted a 2005 report by students in Penn's historic preservation graduate program, who spent a semester mapping its treasures. The street contains a museum-worthy collection of architectural greats: Furness, Windrim, Cret, Trumbauer, Hale, Burnham.
But how long Chestnut can retain its eclectic spirit is unclear. Far too few buildings have landmark protection.
Indeed, the Boyd isn't the only notable building on the 1900 block facing demolition. It's possible that everything to the east could soon be leveled, including a landmarked art deco commercial building on the corner.
According to HughE Dillon, who blogs as PhillyChitChat, Pearl Properties (which just completed an admirably urban apartment house on the 1600 block of Sansom) is planning a high-rise tower between the Boyd and 19th Street. It's not clear if Pearl will incorporate the historic corner building - or follow iPic's lead and seek financial-hardship clearance to demolish it. The company's head, Jim Pearlstein, did not respond to requests for details.
While the two-story corner building is hardly on the level of the Boyd, it is one of those vernacular early-20th-century relics that conjures up the heady days when Chestnut Street was the center of the region's commerce. Done right, a tower could be a boon for the area. But it would be a terrible precedent to allow the corner to be obliterated under the hardship law, because it has proven itself most recently as a Qdoba restaurant with second-floor offices.
There's no doubt that residential projects are a big reason the street is making a comeback. Just this month, Brickstone started construction on an 80-unit apartment house on the 1100 block, a stretch that truly qualifies as blighted. It's a fine project that combines preservation of an existing building and infill construction.
All this residential activity elsewhere should cause the Historical Commission to question the merits of iPic's plan. To devote a site as big as the Boyd's to a single-story use makes no sense in today's red-hot market. But putting an apartment tower on the roof of the theater - first proposed in 2004 - does. Most of New York's new multiplexes are embedded in the base of high-rise towers. This approach would provide the financial return necessary to really save the Boyd.
In the decade since the art deco theater went dark, dozens of downtown movie palaces have been brought back to life in other cities. But not one has been resurrected without government money and - more crucially - government commitment.
Sadly, Philadelphia's leaders have not been able to muster either. They've also increasingly taken the view that historic buildings must prove themselves as moneymakers. How does the Boyd Apartments sound?
Read full story: Changing Skyline: Boyd is doomed - but plan needs rethinking