Should the Boyd Theatre be saved?

5 minute read
The shuttered Boyd Theatre on Chestnut Street. (Photo: JMazzolaa via Flickr/Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.)
The shuttered Boyd Theatre on Chestnut Street. (Photo: JMazzolaa via Flickr/Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.)

After a hard-fought, multiyear battle, preservationists appear to have lost their campaign to save the Boyd Theatre. Their well-meaning members vow to continue to fight, but with demolition already underway, it's not quite clear what a victory at this point would look like for the group. The building, a city staple since 1928, had been in decline for more than 40 years and completely closed since 2002. The only hints of its previous life are the remains of its rusting marquee and rotting plywood planks covering its glass front doors.

An upscale Florida movie chain, iPic, procured the rights to reimagine the location. They plan to restore the original theater's facade and marquee design but replace its once splendid, but now neglected and decaying, art deco interior with a new, eight-theater movie house. This theater will feature plush leather recliners (complete with pillows and blankets), a full-menu food service, and a top-flight bar and restaurant. iPic also plans to create a museum that honors the old Boyd Theatre and says that it will stock the attraction with related artifacts and memorabilia.

Preservationists are, of course, aghast at the idea. To their way of thinking, the Boyd Theatre deserves to be fully restored, as it once was, to play live events and movies to an audience that all of them firmly believe would flock to its grandeur.

This perspective is quite understandable, but it simply doesn't represent what's best for the neighborhood. Those of us willing to let the Boyd go are admonished by the preservationists as unfeeling opportunists. Their supporters argue that if you don't support the protection of historical buildings, we might as well tear down Independence Hall. This is false equivalency at its most suspect. Independence Hall is a building that represents the birthplace of our nation. Our forefathers conceived, debated, and adopted the blueprint for our country there. By contrast, the most notable thing people recall about the Boyd is that Tom Hanks visited it in 1993 for the premiere of the film Philadelphia — which required a herculean effort just to make the theater presentable at the time.

Venues like the Boyd have been disappearing all over the nation for good reason. Their layout no longer fits the needs of today's more demanding patrons; it's really that simple. While their design was all the rage when first built, such ostentatious architecture places the viewer too far from the action, hinders optimal acoustics, and often results in stuffy or downright chilly auditoriums. One only needs to see a film in the grimy, outdated seats in the main auditorium of the Bala Theatre to understand what I'm talking about. It's very much what I believe the Boyd's fate would look like had the preservationists prevailed.

Preservationist groups rarely consider the long-term financial costs of their goals. Even if the Boyd boosters were able to raise the money to buy the facility, it's quite another matter to find the tens of millions of dollars necessary to fully restore the building. There are still the ongoing costs to consider, such as the prohibitive cost of heating and cooling the space, while restoration funds are sought. Such funds could take decades to raise, if they are ever raised. Meanwhile, the rest of its neighbors are forced to endure a blighted property dominating their immediate landscape.

The tunnel vision of the pro-preservation side means that they neglect to consider the larger impact of their efforts should they succeed. What would happen to the Forrest Theatre (a year older than the Boyd), the Wilma, and the Prince Music Theater if the Boyd reopened in direct competition? Patrons would be drawn directly from those already-struggling venues, quite possibly bringing about their demise. Would we then just start another campaign to "save the Forrest" and repeat the entire cycle? There's a reason the Forrest is dark nine months of a year, and it's not for lack of effort.

Another pro-preservationist claim is that future generations won't be able to experience what such historical buildings offered. How do these supporters explain the existence of the Forrest or the Academy of Music? The reality is that there's even more competition today than when the Boyd originally foundered. Restoring a building that failed simply because it's historic ignores the reasons why it failed in the first place.

Preservationists argue that there's no proof that iPic's business model will succeed. That's correct. However, what we do know is that the Boyd's business model didn't, and not just once, but repeatedly through several different owners. That's also a fact. They also say that there's no guarantee that iPic will honorably deliver on what they've promised. That, too, is true, but it stands a better chance of happening than if the site were turned into a gym.

The stark, harsh, unyielding reality is that, while the Boyd Theatre was a majestic theater in its day, that day is now 80 years behind us. It's time to move on. The new theater that's going up in its place may or may not succeed. No one knows for sure, but it represents a new opportunity and a new start for a neighborhood that's in desperate need of change, and it's about time.

For a BSR interview with Friends of the Boyd leader Howard Haas, including some pointed questions from Rich Heimlich in the comments, click here.

For a BSR interview with iPic CEO Hamid Hashemi, click here.

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