What's historically significant about a building? Is it the grand ballroom, a theater's auditorium, the marble friezes adorning a train station's head house? Or is it the box it all came in?
In most cases, at least in Philadelphia, only the latter is recognized. Friends of the Boyd spent years struggling to convince its various owners and the Historical Commission that the most valuable piece of the puzzle was behind its humble Chestnut Street facade. They managed to convince the public, but not the powers behind the decision, and demolition seems to have begun.
It might be counterintuitive, but historically designated landmarks are not very marketable. Most prospective buyers, whether they're purchasing a hotel or a house, don't want to be burdened with costly restorations within their own property. In fact, there are very few cities where the interiors of private property are dictated with such rigid requirements. Colonial Williamsburg may be one of the most notable exceptions.
For the most part, owners prefer to make their property their own, even if that means gutting the columns and wainscoting from a Victorian twin and replacing it with the open floor plan and Pergo of a suburban McMansion. As unfortunate as that may seem to history and architecture nerds like myself, it's understandable. The Historical Commission has to maintain the balance between preserving our landmarks and retaining their salability.
However, when you consider the fact that the White House was gutted and rebuilt from the inside out in 1952, it would seem that nothing is truly sacred.
Buildings like the Boyd are equally the sum of their parts. Its screen, seats, and lobby are as significant as its Art Deco face. However other buildings in Philadelphia meeting a similar fate aren't necessarily significant for any particular brick or transom, but for the events that took place within. In these instances, the interior is often far more important than the facade.
The Legendary Blue Horizon on North Broad Street is nationally synonymous with boxing. After closing five years ago, several plans have called for restoring it as a boxing venue, razing it for a hotel, and most recently, preserving the facade and building a hotel within. But the problem with this logic is even more pronounced here than it was at the Boyd. While the Blue Horizon is undoubtedly a beautiful building, it's essentially three brownstones that can be found throughout the city. The building's true significance lies behind its front doors, and its converted interior's role as a famous boxing arena.
It's exterior's preservation is essentially pointless, especially as a hotel. Like Philadelphia International Records on South Broad Street, it's not the building that's historic, it's what took place here. Ten years from now this North Broad hotel will either look like several converted brownstones, or a tower awkwardly ascending from a false front. Few will remember what took place here or the famous names that fought inside. Allowing the Blue Horizon's interior to be demolished is like throwing out the LEGOs and saving the box. The building is just a vessel. And without its arena, it will just be a hotel.
When those in charge of protecting our historic landmarks fail to recognize the dynamic complexities of what truly makes a place historic, our efforts to preserve our history become exhausted and what we salvage becomes meaningless.
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