Boyd a step closer to partial demolition

The art-deco auditorium at the Boyd Theater. IPic, a Florida entertainment company, plans to raze the auditorium, but maintain the building's facade.
The art-deco auditorium at the Boyd Theater. IPic, a Florida entertainment company, plans to raze the auditorium, but maintain the building's facade. (AP)
Posted: March 01, 2014

A Philadelphia Historical Commission panel granted preliminary approval Thursday to a Florida entertainment company to demolish the Boyd Theater's lavish art-deco interior, despite an anonymous donor's last-minute offer to save the city's only surviving relic of Hollywood's golden age.

In reaching its decision, the Committee on Financial Hardship concluded that the large movie house could not be redeveloped at a reasonable cost, and that the purchase offer from the Florida company, iPic, represented the best hope for salvaging part of the historic building at 1908 Chestnut St.

IPic has promised to retain the Boyd's narrow frontage as an entrance for a deluxe eight-screen multiplex, but plans to raze the L-shaped building's ornate lobby and auditorium.

Thursday's decision, however, must still be approved by the full Historical Commission when it meets March 14.

Preservationists had attempted to forestall the verdict by persuading a deep-pocketed donor to purchase the Boyd, which has been empty since 2002. Last week, the Boyd's leading advocate, Howard B. Haas, announced that he had found a benefactor who would match iPic's $4.5 million purchase price, but declined to name the buyer.

The lack of details about the potential savior appears to have influenced the committee's decision to approve the demolition request.

"The question was, 'Do we have enough information to say that it is a bona-fide sale? No,' " explained committee member Bob Thomas, an architect who specializes in preservation.

At the same time, he suggested that if more information emerges before the March meeting, the full commission might reverse Thursday's decision.

The company that now owns the Boyd, Live Nation, could legally gut the auditorium at any time, since only its exterior is protected under city law. But Live Nation decided to seek hardship because iPic needs to knock down the outer walls to construct the multiplex.

The committee appeared to struggle Thursday with the decision to raze the movie palace, built in 1928 by noted theater architects Hoffman & Henon and the first Philadelphia stop for such classics as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

Initially, no member wanted to offer a motion to approve the hardship request. And after board member Joann Jones finally agreed to initiate the vote, she had trouble getting a second. In the end, three members voted in favor, and Sara Merriman abstained.

Their brief discussion, which followed two hours of spirited testimony from both sides, was full of grim determination. Several members said that they felt as if they were presiding over a funeral.

"It was a funeral for a movie palace," Haas said after the vote. "We will vigorously oppose this. We don't believe they have applied the right legal standard."

The Boyd, the last of the great palaces that once lined Chestnut and Market Streets, seems to have had nine lives.

Thursday's action was not the first time that a city agency has sanctioned the Boyd's demolition. After the Historical Commission refused to list the theater on the city's historic register in 2002, developer Ken Goldenberg obtained an over-the-counter demolition permit.

He later decided to sell the theater to Live Nation, which planned to convert the 2,400 seats into a Broadway-style venue. The project was scuttled after Live Nation decided to get out of the theater business.

After the Boyd received landmark status in 2008, Live Nation made a deal to sell it to developer Hal Wheeler, who wanted to incorporate the Boyd into an adjacent hotel tower and use its ornate auditorium as a multipurpose venue. Wheeler died before the sale was completed.

During the years the Boyd has sat empty, it has steadily lost supporters.

"It's easy to be a Friend of the Boyd when you don't live across the street," said Dan Coyle, a resident of William Penn House, who complained that the theater was a magnet for vagrants, graffiti, and rats.

Perhaps the biggest blow came when Sharon Pinkenson, who runs the Greater Philadelphia Film Office and was a founding member of the Friends of the Boyd, announced her support for iPic late last year. Like several others who testified in favor of the hardship application, she argued that Center City would benefit from another first-run movie theater.

Preservationists counter that there are several downtown theaters, and that the Boyd could be something more.

"You wouldn't destroy a Rembrandt painting just to preserve the frame," complained Larry Pitt, a neighbor.

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