How To Spot A Theater

 

BoydTheater1928

Entrance to the Boyd Theater, 1928. Photo: The Irvin R. Glazer Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

Editor’s Note: There are seemingly countless ways to imagine and understand the way cities like Philadelphia have changed over the last century, but none perhaps as clarifying as this: Philadelphia once had 400 movie houses, mostly on neighborhood avenues and retail streets. A mere five of them operate today as theaters. Those 400 theaters tell us about the scale of public commercial life and the quality of the urban night; they are a lens on the rich world that was exchanged for the television and subdivision. Contributor Rachel Hildebrandt has spent the last few months documenting the remains of this lost world. Like the once living thing itself, the ruins have a great deal to tell us. Here’s our interpretive guide.

For the past two decades, no building has held the attention of the preservation community like the Boyd Theater. The conspicuously vacant theater, heralded as Center City’s last movie palace, stands as a reminder of an era in which theaters lined Philadelphia’s downtown shopping streets and neighborhood avenues.

Few Center City theaters remain, but the same is not true of surrounding neighborhoods. In fact, we have identified and mapped 135 former theaters still standing. Masked by modernization and hidden in plain sight, they line declining—and rebounding—commercial corridors from Germantown Avenue to 52nd Street.

Interestingly, surviving theaters are often located on the outer edge of these retail centers, not in the densest core sections. A telling example is on 52nd Street: all the theaters at 52nd and Market are gone, but those near 52nd and Girard remain. A similar pattern emerges on Germantown Avenue.

Of the 135 existing theaters, the most prevalent reuse—there are 40 of them—is for religious worship and about half of these are, or have recently been, churches. Various commercial uses animate another 31; nine have auto related uses, eight house light industrial, five are banquet halls or community spaces, and another five operate as theaters: the Trocadero, the TLA, the Prince, the Sedgwick, and the Bushfire. Among other various uses, I took notice of a TJ Maxx clothing store, a post office, a beer distributor, a candy distributor, a pottery supply warehouse, a supermarket, a spa for animals, and batting cages. About 20 are certifiably vacant; a dozen more are indeterminate.

A small percentage of the theaters I visited (I didn’t visit them all) had some interior detail left but were hard to access: the Felton (which was a nightclub and is presently being converted into a mega church) with its stunning interior with ceiling and stage intact; the Capital (the last to close), likely mostly intact, but the owner won’t permit access; the Hollywood, whose very accommodating owner showed me the one art deco mural and column that hadn’t been destroyed by fire, as well as the original lobby floor.

Between the 1890s and 1960s, neighborhood movie theaters were an integral part of urban life. During that period, film impresarios, studios, and national chains opened nearly 400 of them. In contrast to the popularized image of the lushly decorated multi-screen movie palace, the neighborhood movie theater typically featured less ornament and accommodated fewer patrons. For this reason, decades of alternate use and physical alteration have rendered this building type difficult to distinguish.

Although they can in fact be challenging to identify, most former theaters bear one or more of the telltale signs. Look for the following:

A marquee or sign

The presence of a marquee is the strongest, most obvious indicator. Marquees, intended to distinguish movie theaters from other types of businesses, vary in size and style. In general, the more prominent theaters featured large, intricate marquees and the less prominent theaters bore small, simple marquees.

Lawndale Theater, Rising Sun and Fanshawe | Photo: Rachel Hildebrandt

Benn Theater, 63rd and Woodland | Photo: Rachel Hildebrandt

Two distinct sections

When theater operators were unable to obtain large parcels along dense commercial corridors, they purchased storefront-sized lots fronting the corridors and adjacent lots at rear. The former could accommodate a box office and lobby while the latter could accommodate an auditorium. This occurred along already built-up corridors like Frankford Avenue in Kensington and 52nd Street in West Philadelphia. Though identifying a connected lobby and auditorium may require investigation of an entire site, it is a strong indicator. The only other building type that presents a similar form is the early 20th century roller skating rink, of which few remain.

Bromley Theater, Old York Road and Grange Avenue. Photo: Howard B. Haas

Roosevelt Theater, Frankford and Foulkrod. Image: Google Maps

Size + architectural detail that seems out of place

Because theaters were community gathering places, they were larger and featured a greater level of architectural detail in comparison to buildings that housed other uses. Early 20th century theaters communicated their use through decorative roof lines, false fronts, ornate cornices, or arched forms. Their better known mid-20th century counterparts did so through tall vertical or sweeping curved forms, the hallmarks of the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styles, respectively.

Grand Theater, 7th and Snyder | Photo: Rachel Hildebrandt

Vogue Theater, 19th and Cecil B. Moore Avenue | Photo: Rachel Hildebrandt

An unusual-looking church

According to our survey of the 135 extant theaters built before 1970, nearly half now house independent or non-denominational congregations. These congregations—with too many worshipers to fit into a row house and too few for a purpose-built church building—became accidental preservationists when deindustrialization and suburbanization took root in the city, rendering certain building types obsolete. Other trends contributed to the fall of the neighborhood theater, including the advent of the multiplex cinema, the video store, and much later, home entertainment services like Netflix and Hulu.

Jefferson Theater, 29th and Susquehanna | Photo: Rachel Hildebrandt

Adelphi Theater, 52nd and Media | Photo: Rachel Hildebrandt

Any combination of the factors listed above

Capital Theater, 52nd and Stiles | Photo: Rachel Hildebrandt

Diamond Theater, 2119-2123 Germantown Ave. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Diamond Theater, 2119-2123 Germantown Ave. | Photo: Peter Woodall

We identified as many theaters as we could, but probably haven’t found them all. If you know of any or stumble upon one that isn’t on our map, let us know in the comments below. Or, you can submit an original photo to hirachel@design.upenn.edu. (It may appear in a future post, properly credited, of course.)

View this map full screen

About the author

Rachel Hildebrandt, a recent graduate of PennDesign, is a native Philadelphian who is passionate about the changing city she inhabits. Before beginning her graduate studies in historic preservation with a focus on policy, Rachel obtained a B.A. in Psychology from Chestnut Hill College and co-authored two books, The Philadelphia Area Architecture of Horace Trumbauer (2009) and Oak Lane, Olney, and Logan (2011). She currently works as a program associate at Partners for Sacred Places.



20 Comments


  1. Fantastic piece. Kudos to Ms. Hildebrandt and HC.

  2. Rachel – nice job. I went to the Roosevelt when I was growing up in Frankford in the 1950″s. Big selling item for theaters back then was Air Conditioning. I think the movie theaters were among the first public buildings to get AC.

    I remember running out of the Roosevelt in a panic during “It Came From Outer Space”. Scary stuff but I’ve gotten over it.

    Drove past the old Wynne theater in Wynnefield last week. Still there but didn’t notice if it was used for anything.

    Keep up the good work!

    - Paul

  3. Excellent job. Hidden City should compile all their articles and information on the old theaters in one spot. I remember an interesting piece last year on an old manayunk theater.

  4. This is fantastic! I love these theaters, and am saddened by the condition of many of them. I’m so excited to see them mapped out like this!!

  5. Donovan Rypkema

    Great research and writing Rachel! Congratulations!

  6. Regarding the Wynne–by the 1950s, it became a venue for weddings (my parents were married there). In later years, it was a church, but sometime within the last 10-15 years has stood vacant and boarded up.

  7. Tangentially, there is actually a church out in Royersford that was built to look like a movie theater! The church had originally met in a movie theater and when it built its own building it decided it wanted their building to have a theater look.

    Their website is even http://www.moviechurch.com

  8. Wow, that poor Vogue Theater really got attacked with the ugly stick!

  9. Excellent work!

    I’ve got one more telltale sign for early theaters – a tall stage house for the fly. Latter movie theaters don’t have them, but the early ones were also doing vaudeville and nearly always have it. Easy to spot on the bird’s eye view on Bing.com

    Anyone doing research on Philly theaters should check out Irvin Glazer’s two books – a thin paperback called Philadelphia Theaters by Dover has an index of 599 theaters. Philadelpha Theaters A-Z is hardback and provides much more detail.

    Surprisingly few of theaters are included in the City Archives photo collection at http://www.phillyhistory.org. I spent a great deal of time going through the list of theaters in Glazer’s books cross-checking the addresses. See the fruits of my digging at http://www.phillyhistory.org/blog/index.php/2011/02/historic-movie-theaters-of-center-city/ and http://www.phillyhistory.org/blog/index.php/2011/06/neighborhood-movie-theaters/.

  10. I loved this article. I am surprised that the Midway theater (Kensington & Allegheny), The Kent, (Kensington below Front st.)were not mentioned. They were two large neighborhood theaters that I frequented often in the late 50′s and early 60′s. I believe that both buildings are still there. Thank you.

  11. Great article!

    The Sedgwick Theatre’s marker is a couple blocks west of where it should be, on Germantown Avenue.

    There’s a possible former theatre just above Ridge Avenue on Midvale, at Creswell Street.

    There’s a longtime dance studio with a little marquee at 5265 Ridge. Aerial view suggests it’s small for a theatre, but maybe not. Also it has none of the expected exterior decoration.

  12. The Mayfair Theatre was renovated completely a few years back (4 or 5?) as the Devon. It appears to be closed again. Do you know what happened? It seemed to have great promise and had been done over as a state-of-the-art facility for concerts, plays, lectures and the like. I put on a concert there with an Irish singer by the name of Annmarie O’Riordan and we got a great turn-out.

    • Rachel Hildebrandt

      The Mayfair Theater was converted into a bank branch and the Devon was rehabbed by the Mayfair CDC for use as a performing arts center. According to the friends group’s website, it was closed because of state level budget cuts.

  13. John Andrew Gallery

    An impressive piece of work. Congratulations.

  14. I knew intuitively that 1818 Chestnut Street housed an auditorium. How is it used now? I think it belongs to a teacher’s union.
    I am surprised that the Metropolitan Opera House was not included, on Broad and Poplar. Because it was an opera house? And I don’t see Society Hill Playhouse or the Shubin theaters, offhand.

    • Rachel Hildebrandt

      You’re right- the building housed a theater called Theater 1812. It’s one of the more interesting ones because it went from showing adult films to becoming a Boyd’s department store.

      The Metropolitan Opera House and the two other theaters you mentioned aren’t on the list because the focus here is on movie theaters. Not all the buildings on the list are purpose-built movie theaters, but they all housed one for a significant period of time.

  15. Yes, an outstanding piece of work. Um, would it be weird if I asked if you need an assistant to photograph a closed one in the near future? I could provide an email address to contact me….just give a couple of weeks notice and I could do it any day of the week, Rachel. :-)

  16. Larry Williams

    Did anyone capture the Deliverance Evangelistic Church on Broad St in north Philly, a couple of miles south of the Broad and Olny subway station? Speaking of Broad and Olny, How about the old Esquire Theatre there, and the old Erlen theatre on Cheltenham ave. Wow do those places take me back lol. Great times, awesome memories ;-)

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