Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Boyd Theater: What's Next?

Despite an anonymous offer to purchase the Boyd Theater from its current owners, the Historical Commission has agreed to let Live Nation demolish the historic theater. Why is entirely up for speculation. The purchase price of $4.5M didn't come with any guarantees. In fact, one very possible outcome from saving the Boyd's auditorium at the behest of advocates could have resulted in it sitting vacant for another decade, ultimately leading to the loss of the entire building. iPic Theaters has agree to restore the fa├žade.

However given the Historical Commission's job performance, that doesn't mean the city had the theater's best interests in mind. The commission has allowed a number of properties that they deemed historic to crumble in the hands of slum lords and property hoarders, ultimately approving them for demolition.

The Historical Commission's namesake is a bit of a misnomer, and it's questionable whether anyone in the agency understands what constitutes history or why. It's a poorly funded city agency that reviews nominations for historic properties, then I assume they choose the prettiest and slap an arbitrary historic sticker on it. After that, private developers are saddled with the financial burden of restoring a crumbling relic. The commission does nothing to ensure the safety of its historic properties. Many, such as the Church of the Assumption, slowly become undesirable or even unusable pieces of property.

But the loss of the Boyd doesn't have to be a complete wash. This forgotten theater generated more awareness surrounding preservation in one of America's most historic cities than some of Philadelphia's most notable abandonment. There are lessons that have been learned and the commission's flaws exposed.

Sites like the Divine Lorraine and the SS United States are well known because their presence is so prominent. Their fate is unsure because they've sat vacant and stripped. But there are dozens of other sites in the city which, much like the Boyd, are completely usable yet unknown or unappreciated to those passing by.

Instead of dwelling over the demise of the Boyd, the momentum and public awareness it generated needs to be used to move on to the next threatened property: The Roundhouse, Robinson's Department Store, The Department of Public Health, The National Building. These are strange buildings, notable architectural examples that represent unique historic eras. They also sit on prime property ripe for redevelopment.

Maybe it's difficult for those vested in the past to look at the future. But all too often preservationists come to the aid of our historic properties the very moment it's too late. Let's not wait for the wrecking ball to come to The National Office of Big Brothers Big Sisters before we decide it's worth saving. And while we have the attention of the media and the public, let's take the Historical Commission to task for neglecting its sole responsibility: protecting our city's history.

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