Step by Step: Update on the Philadelphia Uptown Theatre Restoration
At the time of its opening in 1929, the Uptown’s grand auditorium dazzled moviegoers.
Philadelphia's Uptown Theatre (covered in Preservation's Summer 2012 issue) once hosted shows by some of the biggest names in music, such as Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and The Jackson 5. Designed by prominent local architect Louis Magaziner, the 1927 Art Deco building originally served as a glamorous movie venue. During the 1950s and '60s, it evolved into a prestigious tour stop for African-American entertainers.
By the 1990’s, though, the Uptown had fallen on hard times. When community organizer Linda Richardson formed the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation (UEDC) in 1995, the abandoned theater in North Philadelphia suffered from a leaky roof, a vandalized interior, and a shabby exterior. The UEDC began raising funds for its restoration, and was eventually able to purchase the building in 2004.
The organization has completed a series of stabilization and preservation projects, such as the restoration of the terracotta tiles on the facade by local tile artist Karen Singer. (It still needs to raise the money to actually install the tiles.) And the UEDC will soon unveil a $1.3 million renovation of a six-story office tower that is part of the original building.
Once the tower is ready in 2014, it will house the UEDC’s office, as well as leasable space. Richardson sees it as an income generator that will contribute to the theater’s restoration effort, along with public and private funding. “The cost for rehabbing, renovating, and restoring was so daunting,” she says. “We thought if we could also bring in income while doing fundraising, it would help.”
Future plans include a total restoration of the theater itself, which Richardson estimates will cost about $5 million total. “Our next step is to inventory the balcony and auditorium so we can get a sense of what is the cost and what we’d like to be able to do,” she says. The UEDC also has discovered a sealed-off train station entrance into the building, and is advocating its re-activation.
Many of the entertainers who once performed at the Uptown have worked to raise money for its restoration, including Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Patti LaBelle, and drummer Earl Young. Richardson and her team also have enlisted the help of longtime neighborhood residents in putting together an oral history of the theater, recording their memories of its role as a major gathering place for the city’s African-American community.
The 50,000-square-foot building made the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Richardson emphasizes that the key to its preservation lies in its standout combination of architectural quality and cultural importance.
“Our dual mission is to preserve the building because of its historic nature, and to preserve it because of what happened there,” she says.
Guided architectural tours of the Uptown take place twice a year, in the spring and fall. Check the UEDC’s website in 2014 for dates.