But a dispute involving the Boyd has escalated into a legal battle that many believe will determine the future of history in Pennsylvania, and could have implications in other states as well. On July 10, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Philadelphia Historical Commission's 1987 certification of the theater was an improper taking of private property.
Suddenly, there was nothing to prevent owners of more than 13,000 historic buildings in Philadelphia from modifying them or even tearing them down. Elsewhere in the state, historic-preservation laws in more than 120 communities were cast into doubt, and at least three buildings have been razed. On Oct. 25, the state's highest court will hear new arguments on the heart of the case - whether preservation regulations are constitutional.
Tens of thousands of historic places throughout the state are in active use, day after day, not as museums or monuments but simply as part of the fabric of life, embodying the skills and traditions of generations of immigrants and contributing to a sense of place. The countryside is dotted with magnificent stone barns whose dramatic heavy timber structures make them feel like cathedrals for cows. The cities are filled with narrow rowhouses, small places where generations of working people could afford to be homeowners.
In Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and other cities, community development corporations have spent money in once-grand Victorian neighborhoods, renovating old houses so they can be rented at a cost that current neighborhood residents can afford.
In the southwest part of the state, the America's Industrial Heritage Project is using millions of federal and state dollars to create a series of parks and tourist attractions intended to tell the story of the industrial revolution in terms of coal, transportation, steel and the labor movement. Meanwhile, just outside of Pittsburgh, a citizens group has taken out a loan to buy a disused blast furnace. Now that the onetime heart of the American steel industry is no longer an earthly hell, the citizens hope it can be turned into an attraction.
At one time, history was the chronicle of great men and epochal battles, and what interest there was in the lives of ordinary men and women was confined to times long past. History has become more inclusive, both of people and time, while the pace of change has quickened. At Homestead, what was once one of the greatest steelmaking centers in the world has disappeared, virtually overnight. For generations of Pennsylvanians, working in the mills or the mines was their future. Suddenly, it became history.
And the historic preservation movement has experienced a similar shift. It once was identified with privilege and old families, lifestyles of the long- gone rich and famous. It has become far more concerned with how ordinary people made their living and lived their lives.
You can still find people like James Biddle, chairman of the Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and proprietor of Andalusia, a Greek revival mansion on the banks of the Delaware that makes the big-screen image of the fictional Tara look a bit provincial by comparison. But you can also find Mike Bilcsik, a former officer of the steelworkers union, who sees preserving remnants of the past in the Monongahela Valley as a way to help displaced workers cope with a very different future. "We talk about history not just as something you tell about," he says. "We're all part of it."
As history has expanded, so has the possible number of historic places. In cities such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Lancaster and York, nearly everything can be viewed as historic in one way or another. Moreover, while history is about the past, its focus keeps changing along with people's interests and values.
During the months since the court first ruled, the Sameric 4 has continued to operate as usual, showing a string of sequels: Terminator 2, Child's Play 3, and the promised final installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street slasher cycle.
But the calm at 19th and Chestnut is deceptive. The decision had a sudden impact. It proved to be the terminator for Pittsburgh's Syrian Mosque, an ornate Shrine auditorium owned by the University of Pittsburgh. The bulldozers moved in last month after the city's historic review board, citing the uncertainty created by the court ruling, refused to designate the building as a historic landmark.
In addition, Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., razed two Victorian houses. The city had issued a stay of demolition, but this was rescinded after the court's ruling.
The decision has also brought nightmares on several main streets by derailing efforts to establish historic districts in towns throughout the state. It provoked the city of Scranton to scrap an agreement it had made with the state Historical and Museum Commission and local preservationists to strengthen its preservation law.
And it probably doomed at least four Philadelphia buildings, for which the Historical Commission has granted demolition permits, though the 19th-century structures remain standing, pending appeal.
The Boyd case has raised fundamental questions about what history is, what role it should have in American life and how to set priorities to ensure that what is most important can be saved.
The decision came at a moment when governments and private developers have focused on Pennsylvania's history - not out of antiquarian interest, but
because they hope it can provide a key to the commonwealth's post-industrial future.
History is important in Pennsylvania. It provides the foundation for the state's $14.6 billion tourist industry. Gettysburg, Valley Forge and Independence National Historical Park are among the nation's most important patriotic pilgrimage centers. The Brandywine Valley and Pennsylvania Dutch country are rural destinations with national appeal, and efforts are being made throughout the state to create new tourist magnets.
In 1955, Philadelphia became the first place in the United States to enact a preservation law covering an entire city. Owners of historic properties in Philadelphia must win the approval of the city's historical commission before they can modify or demolish their buildings, and they may be asked to provide proof of financial hardship to justify their actions.
The kind of local preservation regulation the court struck down represents only a small part of the current history boom. Most of the commonwealth's historic buildings have never had such government protection, though until July, the number was rising rapidly. The decision's greatest impact will probably not be on the historic gems, but on the lesser buildings that constitute their setting. They are buildings that embody the continuity of communities, and give visitors a sense of the character of a place.
The immediate issue in the case is whether the community's interest in preserving its heritage can be seen to impose any obligations on individuals who own pieces of the common patrimony. This is a philosophical question, but it has concrete consequences.
"The question is," the court's majority stated, "whether the costs associated with Philadelphia's desire to preserve 'historic' buildings, sites, objects and districts should be borne by all the taxpayers or whether those costs can be lawfully imposed on the owner of any property the commission chooses to designate as historic."
As a practical matter, governments can't afford to buy everything of historical significance, and governments wouldn't know what to do with the properties if they could. The great majority of historic buildings are in private hands and in active, profit-making use, which is the only way that anything more than widely scattered remnants of the past can survive.
In Philadelphia alone, hundreds of millions of private and government
dollars are being spent on preservation projects, even in these relatively lean times. The $400 million Pennsylvania Convention Center will incorporate the National Landmark Reading Terminal train shed, an element its proponents say will make the center memorable and unique. The renovation of the downtown John Wanamaker store will cost several investors and corporations close to $250 million, and another $75 million is being spent on the Widener Building next door.
On Oct. 25, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will convene in its grandiose room in Philadelphia City Hall for a rare sequel of its own. It has agreed to take a second look at the preservation case, by hearing new arguments on the issue of constitutionality. It will hear from lawyers for the City of Philadelphia, United Artists Theater Circuit Inc., which owns the Boyd building, and many friends of the court.
These include a wide variety of state and national organizations, such supporters of preservation as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Planning Association, the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. A coalition including the Pennsylvania Coal Association, the Pennsylvania Builders Association and the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors will support the theater owners.
It is rare that the court returns to a case in which it has already made a ruling - even rarer that it allows so many parties to be heard during the reconsideration. This rehearing promises at least an opportunity to clarify some ambiguities in the court's original decision, ambiguities that have brought government preservation initiatives throughout the state to a virtual halt. At most, it might lead to a partial reversal of the court's reasoning and allow preservation efforts to go forward much as they did before the court's first ruling.
If the preservation movement had been able to choose where to make its stand, it is very unlikely that it would have picked the Boyd Theater. It is no match for the grandest surviving movie palaces in other cities, nor does it compare with such erstwhile local landmarks as Philadelphia's Mastbaum, Earle and Fox, or West Chester's Warner.
While many other cities were able to preserve their old movie palaces for new uses - two of Pittsburgh's constitute the city's performing arts center - Philadelphia did not. Because the Boyd is the last relatively intact example of its kind within the city, the Philadelphia Historical Commission certified it in 1987, specifically including the interior of the lobby and auditorium.
This was the era of the Center City skyscraper boom. The land on which the theater stands was potentially more valuable as a vacant development site than as a large movie theater. Sameric Inc., which then owned the Boyd, fought the designation and even sought a court order to stop it. When the theater was sold, United Artists, the new owners, continued the fight.
They appealed first to the Board of Licenses and Inspections Review, and then to Common Pleas Court and Commonwealth Court, which upheld the Historical
Commission's designation. On July 10, the state Supreme Court unanimously concluded that the certification was improper. Three of the seven judges did so on narrow legal grounds, but the other four found the act of certification itself unconstitutional.
The court said, in essence, that declaring a building historic - and thus limiting the ways in which it can be modified or demolished - is an unlawful taking of property without just compensation.
The commission, and preservationists throughout the state, had been prepared to lose the case. There were doubts about whether the commission could exercise control over the building's interior, though courts have upheld such regulations in some other states. What nobody expected was that the court would issue so fundamental and sweeping a ruling. Many had thought that the U.S. Supreme Court had settled the issue in 1978, but the Pennsylvania court, relying on the state constitution, came to the opposite conclusion.
While many buildings and districts throughout the city and the state are on the National Register of Historic Places, such listing does not afford any protection from demolition or mutilation. The principal impact of such listings is to make commercial developers eligible for tax credits when they rehabilitate these buildings.
But while being on the National Register can bring benefits, local certification is more often a burden. Local governments have the primary power to control land use, and preservation laws, like zoning codes, are meant to enable communities to determine their own character. Zoning laws may deprive individual property owners of some control over their property. But they also prevent the actions of individual landowners from harming the interests of other property owners and the community as a whole.
The court's majority said that the owners of the Boyd lost the ability to use their property as they chose. But the judges found that the owners of landmark buildings received no compensating protection from the actions of their neighbors.
Some lawyers believe that this reasoning may lead the court to accept the concept of historic districts made up of many buildings that are near one another. Unlike isolated landmarks, districts can be seen to provide benefits as well as burdens for property owners.
If districts turn out to be acceptable, that would end the crisis for most Pennsylvania towns and cities - except Philadelphia. Elsewhere in the state, nearly all protected buildings are in historic districts, while in Philadelphia, all but a handful of the more than 13,000 certified buildings are listed as individual landmarks.
Historic districts weren't even allowed under Philadelphia's preservation law until 1985, and the creation of districts was delayed for several years, while the Historical Commission drew up rules governing them. Four proposed districts, covering the Rittenhouse-Fitler area in Center City, Spruce Hill in West Philadelphia, Girard Estate in South Philadelphia and Penn-Knox in Germantown, would more than double the number of buildings under the
commission's jurisdiction. Action on these has been delayed because of the court's decision.
Because most of the historically certified buildings in the state are in historic districts that range in size from a small cluster of buildings to entire downtowns, it is impossible to estimate how many there are. It's certain, though, that these constitute only a small percentage of the number that could be considered historic. Typically, local historic regulations come only after a community becomes aware of its historic character and finds an economic benefit in retaining it.
"Pennsylvania has more historic buildings in it than any other state," says Brenda Barrett, director of the state Historical and Museum Commission's Bureau of Historic Preservation. "No matter what the court does, preservation efforts are going to continue. But it's not going to be easy, and people are likely to be very nervous about it."
A BID TO SAVE A 1922 SCHOOL IN ARDMORE
The state Supreme Court is to hear another case on historic preservation on Oct. 21, when it considers a suit by a citizens group to prevent the Lower Merion School District from tearing down Ardmore Junior High School, a 1922 building that was one of the state's first free-standing junior high schools. Commonwealth Court earlier rejected the group's plea, but the building has remained standing under a Supreme Court order.
In Ardmore, the building in question is government-owned, and the group called Citizens to Save Ardmore Junior High School contends that the school district is an arm of state government - and is therefore obligated under state law to try to save the building. The State Historical and Museum
Commission has backed that contention, though the Department of Education has not.
The school district has refused to consider selling the stone, classical revival edifice, which has been closed since 1978, arguing that it needs parking on the site. The citizens have said there is an interested buyer.
Thus, the court will deal with two preservation cases in which government plays very different roles. In the Boyd Theater case in Philadelphia, the court will be considering whether a government agency can regulate a private owner of a historic building. The Lower Merion case addresses the issue of whether a public agency that owns an unwanted - but arguably historic - building can be barred from destroying it.
The Lower Merion case might have an impact on buildings owned by school districts and other governmental units across the state. The Philadelphia case, because it strikes at the heart of preservation regulation, could have a far broader impact, in Pennsylvania and beyond.