As the Northern Liberties swelled with immigrants from Eastern Europe in the 1880s, shop owners and real estate investors grabbed up parcels along Girard Avenue west of Fifth Street with the idea of turning the dusty street into a popular commercial district.
The action began in 1885 with the opening of the Girard Avenue Farmer’s Market at Ninth and Girard. Private clubs, banquet halls, and a major bank later joined in. Then, around 1890, the most renowned theater architect in the nation, John Bailey McElfatrick, was brought in to design a show house just east of Seventh Street. This one couldn’t be a simple box–the developer couldn’t get a hold of the parcels directly behind the Girard frontage and so McElfatrick was forced to work with a property that ran north, then jogged east to border Marshall Street.
When the first patrons arrived at the new Girard Avenue Theatre on March 30th, 1891, they entered through an ornate tin and cast iron facade on Girard Avenue followed by three slender Rococo lobbies that led to the spacious 80 by 132 foot, 900-seat auditorium. The brilliant room with its two horseshoe-shaped balconies decorated with plaster forms and 70 foot frescoed ceiling was painted blue, silver, and white. The large stage was separated from the audience by an asbestos curtain.
This curtain was the latest in fire safety technology. It consisted of woven asbestos fibers covered by a coat of oil asbestos paint on both sides. The curtain extended into 18-inch channels dug into the walls on each side of the stage. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, it didn’t work. On October 28th, 1903, at 3:30AM, an electrical fire consumed the stage, with flames popping out of the rear stage windows and the two skylights 90 feet above. The curtain failed about 20 minutes after the fire was reported when a girder from the roof fell into an iron support bar that was already softened from the extreme heat. The fire ended up taking down half the building.
By the time the fire occurred, a Reading Railroad passenger stop at Ninth and Girard had been added to the bustling center of Jewish immigrant life in 1893 (it was upgraded to an elevated stop in 1911). The Eagle Hotel at Sixth and Girard had become the headquarters of the city’s Jewish mafia. Another farmer’s market opened nearby and another theater, the German, was being planned for a location down the street.
In early 1904, the Matthew Schmidt Company was contracted to rebuild the Girard Theatre as quickly as possible. Promoters billed it as “fireproof,” but it wasn’t bankruptcy-proof. Less than a decade later, the Girard Avenue Theatre closed.
The building was purchased by Joseph S. Miller and Company, an electrical engineer and contractor. The structure was re-designed by the firm of W.T. Miller. The alterations couldn’t have been that extensive, since the theater was re-opened on September 2nd, 1919 featuring The Keith Vaudeville Exchange. It would continue to feature “high-class vaudeville” acts (as opposed to the Summer Stock and Minstrel Shows the theater previously held) until the structure was converted, following a design by Ballinger architects, to a movie house in 1927. Rumor has it that around this time a teenaged Milton Berle worked at the theater.
For the next three decades, the Girard Theater, as it was now called, showed movies on its single screen while the neighborhood around it fell into ruin. The Jewish Community moved itself over to Oxford Circle in the 1940s and Girard Station was removed around the same time.
By the 1960s, with Urban Renewal obliterating the peddlers market on nearby Marshall Street, the western end of this commercial center was mowed down in favor of public housing, while the section near the elevated train track made way for expansion of the Children’s Homeopathic Hospital (now Girard Medical Center).
At this point, the theater was converted into its current use: a supermarket. Klein’s Self-Serv Market was open by 1967 and continued in the building until the 2000s as Klein’s Spanish Food Market. At first, Klein’s re-used the theater’s original facade and emblazoned its name along the structure’s 1927-built marquee. Eventually, the entire tin and cast iron facade was removed. Today, the building serves as a location of Fine Fare Supermarket, a chain based in Brooklyn.
Although the building is functional, its Girard Avenue facade is a faceless ghost–and an eyesore. The metal safety gates over the first floor windows remain down even when the store is open, and all of the upper floor windows have been filled in with concrete blocks. The east facade of the building, facing Marshall Street, still carries some of the building’s original beauty but is riddled with utilities, cell phone relays, and bricked-up windows. Large areas of graffiti were recently painted-over.
The interior is more or less altered beyond recognition, but its hard to tell what actually remains since a low drop ceiling hides most of the theater’s details. An old mezzanine (or balcony?) sticks out above the dairy section, showing some surviving McElfatrick-designed plaster details, and the proscenium arch still exists in what is now a storeroom behind the meat counter. Sadly, this is the only Philadelphia theater designed by John Bailey McElfatrick that still stands (his son, William McElfatrick, designed the Metropolitan Opera House a few blocks away).
Nearby, the rear section of the German Theater still stands, along with the old National Security Bank, both at the corner of Girard and Franklin. A solitary row of cast iron columns are all that remain of the Farmers and Mechanics Hotel that once stood next door to the Girard Avenue Theater. (The old Sixth Street Market, with its distinctive cornice, is set to become a batting cage, if plans come through. It proudly sits at Sixth and Girard, holding a check-cashing place among other stores.)
Will this forlorn stretch of Girard Avenue ever return to glory? Would new development revive the area if the Girard Station Rail stop was ever rebuilt? Could a building so far-gone as the old Girard Avenue Theater ever be restored? We’ll probably never know– but if influence from nearby Northern Liberties ever reaches this area, we might find out.
While we’re on the subject of that stretch of Girard, I imagine that the “finest rink in Pennsylvania” at 814 Girard is also long gone.
Probably 25 years ago I was coming up Girard and simply looked at the outline of the building and said, matter of factly, ‘Oh, full fly theater!’ Step back and post another pic showing the three quarter view. There is nothing else it could be. Went inside, down the sloping floor towards the back, and there is the first balcony level. THAT was a surprise, and I still remember the rush of it…
Fascinating. Hidden City should publish a book compilation of these features. Even if many of the subjects were sadly impermanent, this kind of work itself deserves permanence.
Another old theatre– how about the building at 7th and Snyder on which you can still faintly see the word “talkies.” (Another old Jewish neighborhood, too)
Ive seen that as well…great building
I lived on Franklin street for years…I used to drop in that dreadful store when I was desperate for coffee…It was clear to me that it was a theater was upon a time…I was asked to leave when my curiosity led me into to places I should not have been..It still has its fly space and the proscenium…such a shame that all the crappy framing,drywall and drop ceilings hides the true nature of that building.
The huge building one block east is a beauty also…The previous owners let me poke around in it…They said it was a Nickelodeon at one time the second floor was amazing,although it was a mess,and still is.
I inherited an old family photo with the theater sign in the background. A Google search helped me narrow down the address and find your site. There’s enough view in the photo of the rest of the block so I can get a sense of the neighborhood. I’m guessing this is 1940s. I can make out a restaurant where people could “Dine & Dance” and drink Ortlieb’s Beer. There was also a millinery & beauty shop on the block, and a sign for the Capital — a restaurant? The people in the photo are my grandmother’s 1st cousin, and a young couple — he in a dark suit and hat, and she in a light suit & veil, apparently newlyweds, although we have no idea who they are. Thank you for having this page and shedding some light on the history of the block.
I was cycling along Girard Ave several years ago and came upon a building undergoing renovations at Front Street. Stopped in out of curiosity, discovered that it, too, had once been a theater as the previous use’s interior was being ripped out to be replaced by some other one and I caught it just as the original one could be seen, although just for a few days before it disappeared again. It had been the Jumbo Theater.