After decades of neglect, only a slice of skeleton remains of a historic African-American theater on South Street near 15th.
Once an icon of art and culture in Philadelphia’s black community, the Royal Theater is now being demolished. Construction crews started taking down the building in February 2017. But it was doomed long before the bulldozers arrived.
The Royal shut down in 1970, and the structure has slowly been decaying ever since. By 2016, it had reached such a state of disrepair that even well-intentioned developers couldn’t manage to save it.
Instead, the theater has now been almost entirely demolished. Only the facade will be saved, and it will front brand new mixed-use space developed by OCF Realty.
So how’d we get here? And what’s coming next? Here’s everything you need to know about the site of the Royal Theater.
The Royal’s legacy
After opening on South Street in 1919, the 1,125-seat Royal Theater quickly gained renown.
It was widely regarded as “America’s Finest Colored Photoplay House.” The theater was on the famous national Chitlin’ Circuit, and hosted big-name performers like Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, along with well-attended local talent shows.
Faye Anderson, director of the music public history project All That Philly Jazz, stressed that it was the place to see and be seen. “The Royal Theater matters,” she said. “It was where the big name entertainers of their day appeared.”
Not only was it an icon of African American culture, but it was also an architectural masterpiece. Intricate pillars held up the front of the building, and the inside boasted an art deco-style interior characteristic of theaters built in the late-1910s.
The facade was enough to get the building listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1976, and then on the National Register four years later.
In 2005, the exterior was beautified further by the addition of contemporary murals celebrating black performers, painted inside the arched pillars.
Unfortunately — as the story often goes with African American cultural institutions — neither the building’s legacy nor its beauty could save it from demolition.
Falling into ‘incredible disrepair’
The Royal’s decay first began with a community-wide loss of interest. In the years following World War II, attendance dropped due to desegregation. All of a sudden, black Philadelphians could finally attend any theater they wanted. Sales dropped further with the popularization of the television, and the Royal officially closed its doors in 1970.
Despite its subsequent addition to local and national Historic Registers, the physical building began to fall apart, too.
The theater was first slated for demolition in the 1990s, but it was saved by a scion of the local performance industry. Kenny Gamble of Gamble & Huff, cofounder of Philadelphia International Records, bought the theater — but then let it sit vacant into the 2010s as its physical condition worsened.
In 2016, OCF Realty acquired the property. By that time, according to OCF founder Ori Feibush, the building had decayed so badly there was almost no way to save it.
“It had fallen into incredible disrepair in the last 50 years,” Feibush told Billy Penn. “There may have been opportunities to save the building, but by the time we had come in, it was a foregone conclusion.”
The slow decay and ultimate demolition of the Royal Theater is painful, said Anderson, of All That Philly Jazz, especially for black city residents: “It’s erasing the African American presence from public memory.”
Kevin Brown, chair of the South of South Neighborhood Association, also offered a lament. “I wish we valued these old theaters,” he said. “It’s a shame they keep falling down everywhere. We keep losing these beautiful pieces of history.”
54 new apartments for South Street
No matter how great the loss, the Royal has already been demolished. So what’s going to rise in its place?
Feibush has big plans for the site. Starting next week, OCF crews will start building up a mixed-use facility with room for retail space and 54 one-bedroom apartments.
“We’re ecstatic,” Feibush said. “The building has been nothing but a blight for the last many decades. Repurposing that site will do a lot of positive things for South Street.”
In the front of the building, the Royal’s old facade will remain, reminding residents of its iconic history.
“It was an incredible feat of engineering to get that facade stabilized, and also to build a site that could accept the load of that facade,” Feibush added.
As far as the new development is concerned, some neighbors and business owners are optimistic. Though most people agree the loss of the theater is tragic, they’re also happy to fill a building that’s long been abandoned in their community.
“We’re really excited to see the development and growth of South Street west,” said Brown of SOSNA. “It’s great to see growth of that street. For a long time, the Royal Theater wasn’t part of that process.”
The addition of 54 rental units will be “incredible” for business, said Jill Weber, who owns Jet Wine Bar right across the street. “That’s, what, 100 new potential customers?” she said. “That’s really fabulous.”
Ian Moroney, owner of the South Street restaurant Pumpkin, is happy to see the space filled. But as a music lover, he wishes the old building could’ve been saved — or at least replaced with another music institution.
“I think of all the great musicians who walked in and out of there,” Moroney said. “To me, it’s a little heartbreaking.”
Anderson hopes the Royal’s decay teaches Philly a lesson on the importance of preserving African American culture.
“The deterioration of the Royal Theater did not happen in a vacuum,” she said. “The city needs to get serious about historic preservation, especially about the properties already listed.”