A Royal Loss On South Street

 

After 47 years of vacancy and neglect, the wrecking ball has come for the Royal Theater. The facade, protected by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s easement program, will be incorporated into the redevelopment of the site. Mural by Eric Okdeh for Mural Arts, 2005. | Photo: Michael Bixler

A Florida-based real estate developer, Robert Roskamp, began demolition of the Royal Theater earlier this month in order to build a mixed-use retail and residential project on the site at 1524 South Street. The Department of Licenses & Inspections placed an “unsafe structure” violation on the building last October and a demolition notice promptly followed in January. Because the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia owns an easement on the historic theater’s façade, this part of the building will be saved.

But the Royal Theater’s days were numbered long before demolition began. Philadelphia’s first and largest Black-run theater, regarded as “American’s Finest Colored Photoplay House” after it opened in 1919, has been slowly decomposing since it closed 46 years ago. The legendary venue, at the center of one of segregated Black America’s greatest cultural districts, was made famous in the African American community by radio broadcasts, local talent shows, and live performances from iconic Black performers like Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, and Billie Holiday. The Royal’s owners called it quits in 1970 and the theater has sat lifeless ever since.

Business at the Royal took a slow, irreversible dive in the post-war years. Desegregation of the city’s existing movie houses and postwar decline in movie attendance due to television resulted in dwindling attendance. In 1960, at the height of urban renewal, the plan for the Crosstown Expressway threatened to slice open the neighborhood, a menacing prospect that further drained the lifeblood out of the 1,125-seat venue. 

The survival of the historic theater, besieged by fire damage and severe structural compromise, has long hinged on major capital investment and a committed steward capable of raising one of the city’s most conspicuous African American landmarks back from the grave. Designed in 1919 by Philadelphia architect Frank E. Hahn, the neoclassical movie house was given an Art Deco interior remodel in 1925 by prolific Philadelphia theater architect William H. Lee. The building was placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1976 and on the National Register in 1980. Universal Companies founder and chairman Kenny Gamble took up the cause in 2000 when he purchased the building from the Preservation Alliance (which purchased it from longtime owner Michael Singer in 1998) for $250,000 with plans to return the venue to its former glory as a community and performing arts space. Other proposals by Gamble have included moving the headquarters of NYC-based Rhythm & Blues Foundation to South Street, renovating the building for Scribe Video Center, and even bringing the House of Blues to South Philly.

Yet another revised design for the Royal Theater site went before the Historical Commission’s Architectural Committee in late January 2017. In this version the new façade absorbs the theater’s original front into near oblivion. | Rendering: JK Architects

Following the sale, Gamble received a $50,000 Keystone Historic Preservation Grant from the Pennsylvania Historical And Museum Commission for exterior repairs and a $2.25 million grant from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program of Pennsylvania. In 2006 architecture and planning firm Vitetta was contracted to assess the cost of full rehabilitation. The firm’s architects came up with a prohibitive and uncertain price tag of $8 to $18 million. Gamble’s plans to revive the building stalled indefinitely, and the Royal has remained exposed to the elements in a precarious state of deterioration. In 2009, the Royal Theater was one of ten sites included in the inaugural Hidden City Festival, allowing the public a brief glimpse of the ruins.

Universal Companies and Dranoff Properties partnered in 2013 to redevelop the lot with new residential construction, but have since pulled out of the project. Gamble sold the property to Roskamp last fall. The developer intends to follow through with the site’s original plan of 50 luxury residential units, ground floor commercial space, and will add townhouses for sale along Kater Street once demolition is complete this spring. The Preservation Alliance’s north façade easement, a stipulation included in the 2000 sale, legally binds the current owner to retain the brick and limestone front on South Street. However, the facadectomy feels more like wallpaper at this point as the lingering architectural details of the landmark disappear further in each updated design.

Inside the brittle bones of the Royal Theater. Photographs by Michael Bixler.

About the author

Michael Bixler is a writer, photographer, and managing editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter with Mountain Xpress weekly in Asheville, North Carolina and a native of South Carolina. Bixler has a keen interest in adaptive reuse, underappreciated architecture, contemporary literature and art, and forward-thinking dialogue about people and place. mmbixler.tumblr.com

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11 Comments


  1. The photos are superb.

  2. The Royal Theater, which opened in 1920, along with the Standard Theatre at 1124 South, owned by black entrepreneur John Gibson in 1915, and the Dunbar, at the corner of Broad and Locust Streets, built and owned by black bankers E.C. Brown and Andrew Stevens in 1919, provided venues for both national and local black artists who performed as part of the TOBA (Theater Owners Booking Association) vaudeville circuit for African Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. The Royal is the last surviving vestige of this part of Philadelphia’s black theatrical history.

  3. The Dunbar was at Broad & Lombard, where the Health Center is now.

  4. Lest we paint the wrong picture about a benevolent developer whose philanthropic plans were thwarted: Gamble sold the property for $3,700,000 according to http://property.phila.gov/?p=301002800 – a profit of nearly 1500%.

    Furthermore, according to City records, Gamble and “Universal Homes” — one of Gamble’s companies — continue to hold half a dozen vacant and blighted properties on either side of the Royal, as well as across the street. These derelict properties have choked an otherwise thriving commercial corridor for nearly 3 decades.

    Gamble claims to have put millions into maintaining the Royal. The photos in this article tell a different story.

    • Thank you for telling the truth.
      I lived on the 150p and 1600 blocks of Kater st and Kenny Gamble was a prime force in taking properties for imminent domain to profit universal homes

  5. Nicholas A Pappas

    The old adage, “a picture is worth a 1,000 words,” applies to this exquisite twelve-photo essay. Twelve thousand (12,000) words could not have highlighted the underlying message: Philadelphia’s fiduciary duty to preserve historical sites falls short of the mark. Thank you for spotlighting another tragedy. Hopefully -it will serve as another reminder of our obligation & duty to preserve our common heritage.

  6. structurally compromised my arse, those walls are 6 courses thick

  7. I consider myself luck to have been inside the Royal on one of the amazing Hidden City Tours. (Same with the old MET on North Broad).

  8. I will be you anything that somewhere along the way the facade will be deemed dangerous and they will tear it down too

  9. Will there be anything architecturally salvaged, and if so, by whom?

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