Pearl Properties plans demolition for Boyd Theatre auditorium

Demolition notices posted at 19th and Chestnut streets are a sign of development to come: Pearl Properties is moving forward with its plans to build a residential tower at the corner of 19th and Chestnut streets. It also appears Pearl's plans portend partial demolition for much of the historic Boyd Theatre at 1910 Chestnut.

This time last year the Historical Commission granted a hardship for the Boyd, and approved demolition of everything but the petite headhouse on Chestnut. That decision paved the way for a development group led by Neal Rodin to clear the site to build a multi-screen boutique movie house in its stead, using the historic façade as architectural ornament for the new theaters built behind. By the end of last year plans had changed, and the Boyd remained on Chestnut on seemingly borrowed time.

Pearl Properties bought the Boyd for $4.5 million in October 2014. We don’t yet know what Pearl proposes for the Boyd site, but it is almost certainly tied to the company’s plans to build at the southwest corner of 19th and Chestnut streets.

Pearl representatives did not respond to PlanPhilly’s request for comment, but demolition permits filed for the site were updated early this year. As Philly Mag’s Property noticed last week, Pearl’s other properties on the block have been posted with demolition notices to make way for tower construction. Demolition plans recently submitted to Historical Commission indicate Pearl intends to raze most of the Boyd’s auditorium but retain the entire historic lobby - one of the theatre’s most richly decorated and iconic spaces.

“The Boyd's Grand Lobby is one of the most exuberant and elegant Art Deco lobbies of Philadelphia. Starting with Hollywood's Golden Age, movie premieres and special events began their festivities inside the Boyd in the Grand Lobby,” said Howard B. Haas, an attorney who founded and has led the nonprofit Friends of the Boyd Inc since 2002, via email. “The Grand Lobby and the Foyer that runs from the Lobby to Sansom Street have stunningly spectacular two and three story Art Deco mirrors that are among the most significant features of the Boyd.  Friends of the Boyd entered into our Settlement Agreement a year ago so that as much as possible, the Jazz Age interior features, the great works of a long gone generation of craftspeople, could be saved.”

Friends of the Boyd and the Preservation Alliance negotiated an agreement with Neal Rodin to ensure salvage and documentation of the theatre’s distinctive interiors prior to demolition. That went out the window when Pearl bought the property. But Pearl has made it clear that it will honor that agreement, both Haas and Leech confirmed. Leech said that so far Pearl has been very cordial, if not coy about their endgame.

“It’s frustrating but it indicates maybe a more creative approach to the building,” said a hopeful Ben Leech, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s advocacy director, of the partial demolition.

“The loss of the long grand auditorium, with its history and its perfect sightlines for 2400 seats, is a sad loss,” Haas said. “We've heard many ‘plans’ previously so for now, we hope that the current Pearl Properties plan to save this much of the Boyd actually does save it permanently.”

The Boyd has seen six serious development proposals since 2003. But so far the city’s last Art Deco movie palace has not gone quietly into that good night.

Will the Boyd’s auditorium be razed to make way for something creative or will it be leveled to create a staging site serving Pearl’s high-rise construction next door?

Will the Boyd go down to make way for a crane? Pearl’s not saying.

About the author

Ashley Hahn, Contributor

Ashley Hahn is an independent writer with a background in historic preservation and city planning. She started Eyes on the Street for PlanPhilly in 2011 and was PlanPhilly's managing editor from 2015-2017. Ashley has lived in 12 zip codes that she can think of, including neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York. She is a Philadelphian by choice.

Contact Ashley via email or find her on twitter: @ashleyjhahn.

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