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 crowds. 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.
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.