Architect Daniela Holt Voith, founding principal and director of design at Voith & Mactavish Architects, has approached the renovation of Sedgwick Theater at 7137 Germantown Avenue as a homecoming of sorts. “I grew up in Mt. Airy and have an incredibly strong memory of going to the Sedgwick when I was six or seven with my grandmother, who lived very close to us,” Voith explained. “She and I walked up and it was a matinee of The Three Stooges.”
Although Sedgwick Theater closed when Voith was 11-years-old, that has done little to dim her nostalgia for this 1928 theater designed by architect William Harold Lee, a protege of Frank Furness. Voith is excited about restoring the theater’s marquee to it original Art Deco glory, even though it may never be a movie house again.
After Sedgwick Theater closed in 1966 it was used as a storage facility and partitioned with a cinder block wall, splitting the building in half. The massive screening room was gutted and sold as a warehouse space. The lobbies remained dormant for several decades until the building was repurposed in the mid-1990s by David and Betty Ann Fellner who renamed it The Sedgwick Cultural Center.
However, by 2006, the condition of the theater had not improved, and The Sedgwick Cultural Center moved out. Since 2010 the space has been rented by Quintessence Theater Group, a classical repertory theater which holds performances in what had been the building’s lobby. The former movie screen, seats, and proscenium stage no longer exist. In their absence is a cavernous space begging to be utilized.
Voith anticipates restoration work to start in the summer of 2024 following preliminary discussions with Quintessence Theatre Group in 2020. “The work is planned in phases,” she said. “Phase one includes restoration of the marquee, the storefronts, creating a service entrance, and upgrading the HVAC system. Phase two will make better use of the space that is available. The theater originally sat 1,200. As we move forward, we will be looking at the potential of that space.”
As always, the possibilities are limited by time and money. “Quintessence is thinking about joining forces with other neighborhood cultural institutions such as Woodmere Art Museum” said Voith. “Quintessence’s mission is to stabilize the performance space and be inclusive for special events.” Voith who is working closely with Quintessence and Pennsylvania State Senator Art Haywood to ensure that as much of the historic venue as possible will be restored. J. Scott O’Barr, senior associate and project manager at Voith & Mactavash, and John H. Cluver, a partner at the firm and director of historic preservation, will oversee the project.
“The long-term goal is to establish Sedgwick Theater as a multiple performance venue that will be a cultural community anchor comparable to the Academy of Music, which serves as a theatrical performance space, a dance venue, and a music hall,” said Voith also spearheaded renovation at the “Grand Old Lady of Locust Street.” “We replaced every seat in the Academy of Music and made it more ADA accessible,” she said.
While renovating any edifice built almost 100 years ago requires extensive retrofitting, Sedgwick Theater comes with a unique set of challenges. “We need to make sure the roof doesn’t leak and the structure is ready to support rigging and catwalks if needed,” said Voith. “We want to make sure it will be good for another hundred years.”
Over the last 20 years Voith has become a movie theater maven. She previously designed renovations for Bryn Mawr Film Institute and County Theatre in Doylestown. “The focus is on revitalizing their historic pizzazz,” she said. “These theaters were built as fantasy places to transport you away from the day to day. Each was a key landmark on these main streets. But contemporary audiences expect accessibility, comfortable bathrooms, and our building codes now are more stringent,” Voith explained.
“My work with historic movie houses started with a conversation in 2004 with Juliet Goodfriend, former executive director of Bryn Mawr Film Institute,” said Voith. “I then launched a decade-long master plan for restoration of the 1926 theater, originally known as the Seville. It, too, was designed by William Harold Lee.”
When Voith attended Bryn Mawr College she frequented Seville Theater, now Bryn Mawr Film Institute, at 824 Lancaster Avenue. “Back then, the entrance had a low, flat, dropped ceiling covering up its original ornate design,” she said. “During the renovation we opened the arcades that had been closed for years and exposed the original glass ceiling. We also created a new hall way leading to an additional screening room. This was a multi-phase project beginning with marquee restoration, followed by its atrium, a two-and-a-half-story space with gorgeous glass paneling that had been blacked out and boarded up since the 1940s, and culminating in the addition of two small screening rooms,” she explained.
Voith applied the same approach to County Theater in Doylestown. Built in 1938, she considers the building’s style to be less Art Deco and more “steam ship.” “They acquired property next door so we could expand the lobby, facade, and add two more theaters. The impact it’s had on Doylestown has been amazing,” she said.
Voith’s next project will be a small renovation at Ambler Theater, the 1928 Spanish Colonial movie house constructed by the same builder as Seville Theater. The Ambler Theater shares a commonality with both the Bryn Mawr Film Institute and County Theater in that they are all nonprofit, community-based theaters that specialize in independent, art, and foreign films.