Changing Skyline: Preservation means saving what's inside, not just the shell

A 2004 Friday-night bout at the Legendary Blue Horizon on North Broad. A developer's plan would replace the arena with a garage, saving only the facade.
A 2004 Friday-night bout at the Legendary Blue Horizon on North Broad. A developer's plan would replace the arena with a garage, saving only the facade. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 20, 2013

When we think about the role that the Royal Theater and the Legendary Blue Horizon played in the cultural life of black Philadelphia, it's not their facades we remember, handsome as they are. It's what happened inside: the concerts by Fats Waller and Bessie Smith at the Royal that made South Street jump; the boxing matches and cabarets in the Blue Horizon's intimate arena that had North Broad Street buzzing.

Even though the glory days of these venues are behind them, their history remains alive to us so long as the buildings stand. But what happens to that past when such touchstones are transformed beyond our recognition?

Both the Royal and the Blue Horizon are now controlled by developers who would gut their innards and insert soulless structures behind the thin veneer of their facades, a parking garage in the case of the Blue Horizon. That would leave the public with the equivalent of a cardboard cutout of the once-glamorous venues, perfect for photo-ops but lacking in architectural flesh and blood.

There is a name for this faux preservation: facadectomy. It's bad enough when developers do it on their own dime. Here, the city and state have become enablers of identical tales of destruction, one uptown, one downtown.

Let's start with the Royal, whose saga has been simmering longer. In 2000, the Preservation Alliance sold the neo-Georgian-style theater to Kenny Gamble's Universal Cos., so he could turn it into a cultural anchor for the reviving South Street corridor. He was awarded a $2.25 million state grant in 2011 for construction.

In the dozen years since Gamble bought the Royal, the surrounding Graduate Hospital neighborhood has exploded. South Street is packed with new restaurants, shops and housing, except for the blighted throwback at 1522 South St. The 1,100-seat Royal is more derelict than ever.

This spring, Gamble applied to the city Historical Commission to build rowhouses on the site of the landmarked theater, arguing it was impossible to justify the cost of renovations. His new plan would use the Royal's facade as a gateway to the houses. That request is pending.

Take the subway a few stops north to the Legendary Blue Horizon for an even sadder story. The fate of the stately Civil War-era brownstone just south of Temple University's campus mirrors the fortunes of North Broad Street itself. After serving for decades as a lodge for the Loyal Order of Moose, the mansion was converted into an events hall and boxing arena in 1960.

It was just the Blue Horizon back then, but the arena quickly become legendary, hosting up-and-coming contenders and grizzled veterans in a setting so intimate you could see the sweat on the fighters' brows from the balcony.

At the Blue Horizon, boxing fans got their first glimpse of future champions. Rocky 5 was filmed there. "If boxing has a soul," Sports Illustrated declared in 1996, "it may reside in a place that is a throwback to the days of smoky clubs and Friday-night fights."

Still, the arena couldn't escape the same forces that doomed the Royal. Once opportunities opened up for African Americans, people had their pick of entertainments and were no longer limited to traditional black venues. As North Philadelphia's population departed for better-off neighborhoods, the wedding and events business fell off. Although the building is in excellent condition, its owner, Vernoca Michael, owes $102,965 in taxes, and the city has initiated foreclosure proceedings.

Two years ago, Mosaic Development Partners made a deal with the city: If the property were held back from public auction, the Philadelphia real estate company would purchase the mansion, pay the taxes, and convert it into an 87-room hotel. In exchange, Mosaic promised to preserve the boxing arena as a banquet hall and nightclub, according to the Preservation Alliance's Ben Leech, who was consulted on the arrangement.

Excited about the prospect of filling in a critical gap on Broad Street between Temple and Center City, the state offered $6 million to help the project along. City Council rezoned the block to accommodate a seven-story addition next door.

But Mosaic, like Gamble, has belatedly redesigned the project, and the new design is much worse. Only the brownstone facade would remain, Leech says. Where the arena now stands, Mosaic would construct a garage. A new hotel would be built next door.

"They want to tear down the very thing that made it historic," Leech says.

Apparently, Mosaic argues that the original plan wasn't economically feasible. My attempts to interview Mosaic founder Leslie Smallwood Lewis were unsuccessful. Neither she, nor her development partner, Bob Cohen at Orens Bros. Real Estate, responded to calls during the last three weeks.

As Philadelphia knows too well, reusing an old theater is not for the faint-hearted. But it can be done. The Uptown Theater, another significant venue in Philadelphia's black history, is wrapping up a faithful historic renovation a few blocks north of the Blue Horizon.

The offices on its upper floors will start renting in fall, says Linda Richardson, who heads the nonprofit overseeing the effort. Although it took two decades to get to this point, the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corp. has stuck to a sensible business plan that calls for repairing the theater in phases with revenue from the office rent.

Mosaic's founders have never shown much patience for historic buildings. The company just demolished the castlelike Edison High School on Lehigh Avenue for a suburban shopping center. A decade ago, Lewis was part of the team that tried unsuccessfully to raze Chestnut Street's historic Boyd Theater.

The neighborhoods where the Royal and Blue Horizon are located are experiencing warp-speed gentrification, and the fragile relics of the past will increasingly come under threat. That's especially true of those that played a part in the life of the city's black community.

We've been slow to take the architecture of pop culture seriously, observes Temple University urban history professor Bryant Simon, but "they are like the transcript of people's lives."

The city didn't have to bend over backward for Mosaic, arranging substantial grants and zoning changes for the hotel project. Those incentives were offered with the expectation that there would be public payback: the preservation of the Blue Horizon's most resonant historic feature, the boxing arena. If Mosaic isn't going to preserve it, why not just offer the building at public auction and see what happens?


Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, ingasaffron@gmail.com

and on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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