1524 South Street, Philadelphia
UPDATE (September 2014): Universal Companies has announced new plans to develop the Royal Theater site in a partnership with Carl Dranoff. All but the theater’s front facade would be demolished and replaced with a five-story, 45-unit luxury apartment building with 7,600 square feet of retail. The plan will require approval from the Philadelphia Historical Commission, but has not yet been submitted for review.
Significance: South Street was once the heart of Philadelphia’s African American community, and the Royal Theater was once the heart of South Street. Built in 1920 as the city’s first and largest movie theater catering to African Americans, the 1,125-seat theater was billed as “America’s Finest Colored Photoplay House.” It specialized in “race films” by and for African Americans, an industry that showcased the talents of Paul Robeson and director Oscar Micheaux, among many others. The Royal also hosted the era’s biggest names in black music, including Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and Pearl Bailey. The theater remained a neighborhood fixture through a period of slow decline along South Street, but it was eventually shuttered in 1970.
Threat: Now vacant for over three decades, the Royal continues to deteriorate while its South Street neighborhood enjoys a renaissance. Neighbors continue to hope for the theater’s rebirth, but its current owners have yet to develop a viable reuse plan for the site. Despite listing on both the Philadelphia and National Registers of Historic Places, recent proposals have suggested demolishing all but the iconic South Street façade.
Recommendation: Any redevelopment of the site should honor the theater’s legacy as a dynamic neighborhood anchor and cultural beacon. The building must be stabilized and sufficiently maintained now to allow for the best possible rehabilitation in the future.