At the end of May this year, the Trocadero Theater at 11th and Arch Streets closed its doors for good after a handful of big, final concerts to celebrate decades of presenting national music acts and local bands. Although the venue has experienced closures before, its future is now uncertain. Current owner Joanna Pang has stopped booking shows, but hasn’t indicated whether the building will be sold.
Built in 1870, the Trocadero was designed by architect Edwin Forrest Durang. A specialist in ecclesiastical and theatrical design, he also designed Roman Catholic High School for Boys at Broad and Vine Streets and Fishtown’s embattled St. Laurentius Church. It opened as the Arch Street Opera House, offering musical comedies and traveling minstrel shows, followed by burlesque shows in the 1950s. In the late 70s, Pang’s father purchased the building to present Chinese cinema. The 1980s saw the start of its most recent incarnation as a dance club and live music venue.
The building was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1973 and to the National Register of Historic Places five years later. Now, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is contemplating a nomination for the interior to be historically designated.
“On the face of it, it’s just like you were nominating a building,” said Patrick Grossi, director of advocacy at the Preservation Alliance. “It’s something that communicates historic significance, either because of its architectural pedigree or what it says about the past, whether it’s a local past or national past. Does it communicate some kind of cultural significance or did something of significance happen there? Those kinds of criteria are essentially the same for exteriors and interiors.”
What is different is the number of each that are currently on the local register. To date, there are only four sites in Philadelphia with a historic interior designation. Two were a result of nominations by the Preservation Alliance: 30th Street Station and the Grand Court of the former John Wanamaker department store and what is now Macy’s. The other two are City Council’s chambers in Room 400 of City Hall and much of the former Family Court building on Vine Street, including murals created in the 1930s under the Works Progress Administration.
Compare that to the hundreds of building exteriors on the local register. In a city with as much history as Philly, it would seem like many more building interiors would qualify.
“Where it’s a little different for interiors is they need to be publicly accessible or they need to be spaces that were historically publicly accessible,” Grossi explained. “So you might have a beautiful historic home, but I can’t nominate that interior.”
However, there are no clear rules in determining accessibility, and with so few precedents, there is not a lot to draw upon when considering an interior. This came up around five years ago when the Preservation Alliance nominated the former Blue Horizon boxing venue on North Broad Street. The storied venue operated from the 1960s until 2010 and was regarded in the industry as one of the world’s premiere boxing venues.
“We had nominated the main arena as an interior and bumped up against the issue of public access,” Grossi recalled. “One of the commissioners [of the Philadelphia Historical Commission] at the time argued that it was not a public space, it was actually, in his term, a ‘tolled’ space. And that argument carried the day. It was not really considered a public space and therefore deemed not eligible.” That decision, however, was not viewed as precedent-setting and the Historical Commission continued to consider each nomination individually.
Along with answering the question of public access, the condition of the interior must be considered, just as it is for exteriors. The four interiors currently designated are remarkably intact, with minor changes made over the years. “By and large those buildings you walk into today in 2019 are not that different from the building you walked into in, say, 1900,” noted Grossi.
The Trocadero, on the other hand, has had some changes. In particular, the floor height and some of the seating configuration have been changed. Much of the original seating and ceiling ornamentation are gone. “So you have to make a determination, is there enough there to communicate what this place once was, and communicate significance as a performing arts venue?” Grossi asked, opining that, on that count, the site’s status remains.
“Because there are so few of these [designated interiors], it’s a somewhat unresolved question,” he explained. “There are any number of buildings that have been added to the local register that are in pretty rough shape. They’ve suffered a lot of neglect over the years and in some cases suffered some rather insensitive changes. Nevertheless, their significance was still conveyed and they were added to the local register. So does that same standard apply to interiors?”
If the entire interior isn’t deemed sufficiently significant, either due to alterations or deterioration, there is an option to nominate parts of it, or specific objects in the building. This strategy has been used a handful of times, starting in 1998 with the Dream Garden glass mosaic mural by Maxfield Parrish and Louis Comfort Tiffany in the Curtis Building on Independence Mall. The Wanamaker eagle statue also received this designation 17 years before the entire Grand Court interior was added to the local register.
The Preservation Alliance began considering an interior nomination for the Trocadero when the announced closure raised an alarm for them. “There’s been a string of closings of historic theatres, the Royal being one, the Boyd another. We’d hate to lose another downtown theatre space,” said Grossi. “I don’t doubt that some people might worry the Troc could go the way of the Royal on South Street. The Royal went through an economic hardship process and they were granted permission to demolish the building.”
According to Grossi, what saved the facade of the Royal Theater was a private preservation easement the Preservation Alliance had with the owner. But that limited preservation, called a “facadectomy,” is not an approach embraced by most preservationists, who usually consider it a last-resort compromise.
Given that the owners of the Trocadero have cited Philly’s changing music landscape and the increase in venues run by mega-promoters in their decision to cease operations, Grossi thinks there’s a risk the building could be named as an economic hardship case. “Then the entire thing would be gone. These old performing arts spaces are vulnerable properties, and there’s not a whole lot in place to recognize and protect them.”
Since the Historical Commission doesn’t regulate use and doesn’t have any control over zoning, this sort of designation is one of the few tools at their disposal. Whether or not the Preservation Alliance goes ahead with a nomination of the Trocadero’s interior for the local register, Grossi thinks that they’ll be considering more interiors in the future to more formally recognize their significance.
Preservationist ponder saving the interior, ON SOMEBODY ELSE’S DIME.
You snooze, you lose. Lately, we all lose, a lot. Stop pondering!
Somebody needs to save the Troc! Return the venue for concerts,plays,headliners,etc. What about the same people that were supposed to revitilize the Met on North Broad St?
Virtually any historic performing venue needs preservation, as new ones can rarely be built, let alone with the sensibilities of the past that worked so well. The Trocadero is perfect for revues, dance, any number of types of performance, for lectures; moreover, to have a venue independent of corporate presenters is particularly important. One could say all venues are in danger in this digital era. Preserving it can be no more hardship than simply keeping it closed. As long as the structure is maintained. I can’t see if there is any space for an orchestra pit. But this looks ideal for our smaller opera companies, for the Chamber Orchestra, choirs, and any of those groups would love to have an alternative to the Kimmel Center. I’m sure all the touring acts have loved playing there. I had a friend who once choreographed for the strippers who worked there.
Nice piece Kimberly and thanks for bringing this to our attention. This historic fabric of Philadelphia is quickly being replaced by a more or less intentionally bland and temporary facade where each new building is less and less distinctive and impersonal on oh so many layers. I have listened to you ever since your XPN days and you’re one of the best. Glad you’re still on the scene.
I went to college in Philadelphia and it had such charm. There were some harsh “urban chic” type building projects that went up at Temple that we all hated. It’s just developers being lazy and greedy. It would be such a shame to lose another beautiful venue to corporate interests. Shame on Philadelphia for not having stronger protections in place in the first place. Shame on Live Nation and the other mega promoters — what has our country come to…
More importantly, how can we get involved and help the Preservation Alliance generate public support for this designation?
This is such a very, very foolish discussion. Philadelphia should be profoundly embarrassed that the preservation of a major historic theater is actually an open question.
There are very few surviving 19th century theaters which retain so much of their early historic interior. This building AND its historic interior are of real, NATIONAL IMPORTANCE. Anyone who argues that this interior is unremarkable, unworthy of a special effort to save it, needs to review the actual number of pre-1900 theater buildings in America that retain as much of their historic interior design.
Historically, many, perhaps most, surviving Victorian era theaters were remodeled first to accommodate the introduction of silent, and then talking films. Some have completely modern interiors. There are many possible solutions to the relatively small challenges of providing orchestra space, modern stage equipment, etc. Smaller theaters across America have solved such problems long, long ago.
Philadelphia does have significant urban problems, but so do cities like London, which retain many historic theaters, and have figured out how to maintain their viability.
Is Philadelphia such a cultural backwater, that it is incapable of saving an architectural treasure? Even small towns have saved their architectural treasures. The small town of Napa, California, raised more than 10 million dollars to save and restore their 1880 opera house.
The small city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, raised more than 20 million dollars for the massive restoration of the seriously deteriorated Colonial theater completed in 1903. The work included significant exterior restoration, the expensive effort of matching the antique bricks for a major addition, and the detailed restoration of the auditorium and public spaces to their historic appearance.
The 600 seat auditorium of the What Cheer Opera House (built 1893, as a part of a multi-purpose Masonic Lodge building), with a full, historic balcony seating several hundred, has been restored for modern performances, by a town with a population of about 800.
Is anyone seriously arguing that the major city of Philadelphia cannot afford to save the relatively small Trocadero theater? That argument is actually, truly, laughable.