Buildings Then and Now: The Boyd Theater

The Boyd Theater
The Boyd (later Sam Eric) Theater today

The Boyd Theater, located one block away from Rittenhouse Square at 1908 Chestnut Street, is known for its interesting architectural designs. The Boyd was unique among Philadelphia’s movie palaces for its Art Deco design, a style very much in fashion when it first opened in 1928. Among its notable decorative elements: a series of murals in its lobby that celebrated “The Triumph of the Modern Woman.”

For most of its existence, it was owned by the Stanley Warner theater circuit and featured Warner Bros. pictures. In 1971, the theater was sold to the Sameric Corporation, which renamed the theater the “Sam Eric.” Sameric sold its theaters to the United Artists Theater Circuit in 1998, which became a tenant instead of an owner when the Goldenberg Group bought the theater from UA in 1998. UA broke the lease in bankruptcy and closed the theater on May 2, 2002.

The Boyd Theater in 1933
The Boyd Theater in 1933

The Boyd also figures prominently in the evolution of Philadelphia’s historic preservation laws. In 1987, the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted 7-1 to designate the theater as historic on the grounds that it “has the most complete art-deco interior in the city.” Sameric fought the historic designation in state court, winning in the first round but losing on appeal – sort of: while the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found on review that the city’s historic preservation law was constitutional, it also found that it did not allow interiors alone to be designated historic. It would not be until 2008 that the Boyd’s place on the city’s historic buildings registry was assured.

Poster promoting preservation of the Boyd
Poster promoting the Friends of the Boyd on the theater's boarded-up entrance

The fight over the historic designation led to the creation of Friends of the Boyd, whose main goal is to restore the theater back to its former glory. The organization states that its mission is “to see the true restoration of this historic Art Deco masterpiece and preserve the movie palace experience for this and future generations.”

Two efforts to return the Boyd to active use have foundered. The first came when Clear Channel Communications bought the building from the Goldenberg Group in 2005 and announced plans to turn it into a live performance venue. That effort came to an end when Clear Channel spun off its real estate into a separate company called Live Nation, which put the theater up for sale when it shifted its focus.

That’s when developer Hal Wheeler entered the picture with a plan to reopen the Boyd as part of a complex that would include a new Kimpton hotel, the Monaco. Under Wheeler’s proposal, the Boyd would serve as an auditorium that would host concerts, lectures, light entertainment and hotel events. Wheeler’s untimely death in late 2010 put an end to that plan, and as of now, the Boyd is once again a theater with an unclear future.

The Friends of the Boyd encourages others to help restore the theater through volunteering, through making donations to the organization, or by offering suggestions to Howard B. Haas, president of the Friends of the Boyd, at HowardBHaas@aol.com. Facebook users can search “Friends of the Boyd” for future updates.

–By Jazminn Jones for PhiladelphiaRealEstate.com

Contemporary photos by the author