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.
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.
Size and 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.
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.
Any Combination of the Factors Listed Above