Demolition began Saturday on the historic Boyd Theater, with wrecking crews tearing down the part of the L-shaped building that lines Sansom Street.
"The theater was a precious resource that can't really be replaced," said harpist and composer Saul Davis, who lives across Chestnut Street from the front of the theater.
Davis, who led early fights to save the theater from demolition, said he retreated to his bedroom to avoid the upsetting sounds of the building being torn down.
"It is heartbreaking," said Howard Haas, president of the Friends of the Boyd. "Friends of the Boyd waged a 13-year battle to save the Boyd. Philadelphia will no longer have any premiere movie palaces remaining."
By late afternoon, huge sections of the brick wall had been ripped out on two sides of the building, leaving a pile of rubble below. The Chestnut Street facade remains intact.
Fans of the 1928 Art Deco movie palace have been working for decades to save the theater - and last year struck a deal to protect the Chestnut Street exterior, the foyer, and lobby. The agreement did not save the lavish auditorium.
"This is exactly what the Historical Commission approved when they granted [previous owners and developers] a hardship exemption last year," Benjamin Leech, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, wrote in an e-mail.
"This is why it was so aggravating to hear those plans described as just a 'gutting' or 'renovation.' This is the image that everyone fighting to save the Boyd had in the back of their minds," he wrote.
"It's only going to get worse, once they break through into the auditorium," he said.
On Feb. 25, the city issued a permit allowing "partial demolition of certain portions of the rear vacant building (former theater)."
In the ornate auditorium, images of draped dancers cavort around a chandelier and an Amazon queen attended by her minions presides over the stage as chariots pull in from the side and a robed flute player heralds the action.
"So sad to see such an irreplaceable icon reduced to dust," Rob Einhorn, of Philadelphia, wrote in a Facebook comment. "I have (and will always have) fond memories of walking into that auditorium as a kid and just being wowed and blown away by the detail."
Another permit issued Feb. 25 allows complete demolition of two two-story buildings at 1902 and 1904 Chestnut. The building known as 1900 Chestnut would remain undemolished (the Boyd is at 1910 Chestnut).
In late October, Live Nation, which had owned the theater, quietly sold it to Jim Pearlstein and Reed Slogoff of Pearl Properties for $4.5 million.
No one answered the phone at Pearl Properties in Center City or at the Pearlstein residence Saturday evening. A person who answered Slogoff's home phone declined to make him available.
Neil Rodin, the developer who said he was bringing a high-end multiplex movie theater to the property, had never followed through on his plan to buy it from Live Nation.
Pearl has wanted to build 26-story apartment tower on the lot immediately east of the Boyd, but the plans for the building would be twice as dense as zoning allowed. Owning the Boyd land enlarges the footprint and resolves the zoning issue.
"We really are shocked at the loss," Haas said. "We did everything we possibly could, but the city of Philadelphia wasn't supportive enough.
"Now our many volunteers who poured their time into this effort are all heartbroken and the many members of the public who had rooted us on because they remembered the Boyd in its heyday will lose this great landmark."
Inquirer staff writers Stephan Salisbury and Melanie Burney contributed to this article.