Saturday, December 8, 2012

Insignificant Significance: Dock Street's Ritz 5 Theater

A common concern brought about by the possible demolition of the Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden is that it's highly unlikely that anything as architecturally significant will ever stand on the site again. It's a valid concern. The church is old and simply really, really cool looking.

It's easy to browse the "Then & Now" picture books and recoil in horror over the landmarks we've demolished for freeways, parking lots, and other architectural eyesores. Those books profit on a longing for another time but fail to showcase the progress of time, ignoring countless modern marvels that have replaced poorly built or just plain ugly buildings. In short, not everything built yesterday is good.

Philadelphia sits on a balance between slow development trends and a portfolio of priceless history that allows preservationists the luxury to save buildings that would be lost to booms in New York or Chicago, but also to get a little carried away with regard to what constitutes historical significance.

That awkward situation is already teetering at the Ritz 5 on Dock Street and nothing has even been proposed. Landmark Theaters has only suggested an expansion of its Dock Street location, admitting that it's highly likely nothing will happen. That hasn't stopped Lorna Katz Larson of the Zoning and Historic Preservation Committee from lauding the alleged historical significance of the 1970s theater, citing it as "a very modern response to the historic district."

Landmark Theaters' Ritz 5 on Dock Street

Is it? Or is it just a cheaply built theater from the 1970s? If you can interpret little more than bricks and metal as "a response" then why not interpret a parking lot as a response to the American love affair with the car? The Ritz 5 is as architecturally significant as a Safeway.

Another "response" to Philadelphia's historic district. Is it significant?

When Society Hill was redeveloped in the mid 1900s, preservationists criticized the loss of countless Victorian masterpieces and Colonial history. Dock Street was a thriving, albeit dirty, local resource to the residents of Philadelphia, and although the revitalization of the neighborhood ultimately attracted the wealthy residents of today's Society Hill, the loss of the markets on Dock Street and those accessible on Delaware Avenue before I-95 was not met without protest.

Dock Street was once a thriving market place, entirely razed in the mid 1900s to make way for modern development projects including the Ritz 5.

The Ritz 5 Theater is not a significant landmark. Like the fate of so many Victorian masterpieces, The Ritz 5 is the same inconsiderate aftermath we worry will come from the Church of the Assumption's demolition.

It's easy to imagine the residents of Center City looking across the razed prairies of Society Hill in the 1960s and 70s wondering - much like the neighbors of the Church of the Assumption - when anything as significant would stand there again. Even since the neighborhood's revitalization, only Society Hill Towers stands as a significant testament to midcentury design, and I. M. Pei's apartment project still pales in comparison to the Victorian high rises that once graced Walnut and Chestnut.

Society Hill at the height of demolition

Although Landmark Theater's plans for the Ritz 5, however preliminary, may never find a place in the annals of history, the redevelopment of this insignificant property is an opportunity for Society Hill residents to respect the concerns of their predecessors that shopped the markets and filled the offices of another Society Hill.

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