Live Nation granted permit to gut Boyd Theater

Posted: March 16, 2014

The Philadelphia Historical Commission on Friday granted Live Nation permission to gut the lavish interior of Center City's landmark Boyd Theater, opening the way for the building's sale to a Florida entertainment company and the construction of a high-end multiplex on Chestnut Street.

As the 9-1 vote was announced, chants of "Save the Boyd" rang out in the packed hearing room. About 50 theater supporters, who had listened stoically to four hours of detailed testimony on the physical state of the theater and the challenges of converting it to a nonprofit cultural venue, denounced the commission's ruling, calling it a misreading of Philadelphia's preservation law.

The Boyd, which was one of Philadelphia's most glamorous and ornate movie palaces when it opened on Christmas 1928, has suffered multiple setbacks since it closed in 2002 and has been slated for demolition at least once before. But Friday's decision to grant Live Nation "financial hardship" appears to be the most ominous development yet.

Howard Haas, head of Friends of the Boyd, immediately announced plans to appeal, saying: "We believe the commission used the wrong legal standard."

Preservation Alliance director Carolyn E. Boyce said she would ask her board for permission to join Haas' appeal.

In granting relief under the city's financial-hardship provision, the commission accepted Live Nation's argument that it was not economically feasible to repurpose the 2,400-seat theater in its current form. While financial hardship is not the same as decertification, it enables the owner to modify the building substantially.

Live Nation, which has a market capitalization of $4.65 billion, said its buyer, Philadelphia developer Neil Rodin, demanded the hardship provision as a condition of the sale. Rodin is teaming up with Florida movie operator iPic to create an eight-screen multiplex on the site.

They promise to retain and restore the Boyd's narrow limestone facade at 1910 Chestnut St., along with the original glass shop windows at the theater's entrance. But to accommodate the eight screening rooms, they intend to demolish the Boyd's art deco heart - its etched-glass lobby and exuberant, multicolored auditorium, designed by the noted theater architects Hoffman & Henon.

The proposal sent shock waves through the preservation community, which has spent decades trying to save the last of Center City's great movie palaces. In 2008, the National Trust named the Boyd one of the 11 most-endangered historic buildings in the United States.

What particularly upset preservationists during the recent hardship hearings was the suggestion that Philadelphia's historic buildings must pay their own way or risk losing their full landmark status.

"Historic buildings have a hard time proving that they are cheap to operate," said David Brownlee, an architectural historian and a former commission member.

In Hollywood style, Haas announced at the eleventh hour last month that he had secured an anonymous benefactor willing to buy the Boyd for $4.5 million - the same price Rodin and iPic had offered. The friends group believes the Boyd could be converted into a multiuse nonprofit cultural center or, perhaps, an Imax theater.

Haas argued that the mere existence of the donor's offer should have "nullified" Live Nation's hardship claim, since it proved that the building's sale was possible.

Although the donor has insisted on remaining anonymous, he sent a representative Friday to speak on his behalf, lawyer Peter Hearn, a former chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.

Hearn has long been associated with the William Penn Foundation and its lead philanthropist, David Haas, a descendant of the family that founded Rohm & Haas Co. (David Haas is not related to Howard Haas.)

"I hope my presence reassures you that the donor has the assets to buy the theater," Hearn told the commission.

But from their questions, it was clear that the members took the view that the iPic project was the city's best hope of salvaging a portion of the historic theater, albeit only a thin slice. A sizable contingent of Rittenhouse Square residents agreed with the commission.

The commission heard testimony from representatives of several Chestnut Street apartment houses, the Center City Residents Association, and the Rittenhouse Row retail association - all in support of demolition and the iPic project.

They complained that the Boyd was a blight that was bringing down the block. One neighbor, Richard Gross, held up an iPad with the image of a dead rat on the sidewalk in front of the theater as evidence that the building was beyond repair.

Preservation architect Robert Powers dismissed such claims as shortsighted. He said he had just converted Wilmington's Queen Theater into a World Cafe Live, and "it was in a lot worse shape."

The Boyd's Fortunes Through the Years

1928 Opened on Christmas as the city's only art deco first-run movie palace.

1971 Sold to the Sameric Corp., which renamed it the SamEric.

1993 "Philadelphia" has its world premiere at the theater. It was the Boyd's last gala: In 2002, the former movie palace went dormant.

2002 After the Philadelphia Historical Commission refuses to list it on the historic register, developer Ken Goldenberg obtains an over-the-counter demolition permit.

2005 Live Nation buys the Boyd with plans to turn it into a Broadway-style theater.

2008 Developer Hal Wheeler unveils a plan to incorporate the theater into a hotel development.

2010 Wheeler dies of a heart attack, and his plan is abandoned.

2013 Live Nation makes a deal with developer Neil Rodin to build an iPic multiplex. The plan calls for gutting the Boyd's majestic interior and requires a "financial hardship" demolition permit.

March 14 The Historical Commission grants hardship demolition permit.

215-854-2213215-854-2213  @ingasaffron

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