What Deserves Preservation Awards? [Hint: It’s not about buildings; it’s about community.]

Detail: Southwest corner, 15th and South Streets, December 27, 1937. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory)

It’s more than fair to say that, once again, the Royal Theater is not in line for a Preservation Achievement Award. (Nominations for 2013 are due this week to the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.) At this stage of the game, after languishing for 43 years, pretty much only wreckage remains behind the façade of the South Street institution that opened in 1920 and closed in 1970.

The entire South Street corridor had fallen victim to the proposed Crosstown Expressway. That ill-conceived and controversial project would eventually be removed from the city plan. But while blocks of South Street nearest the neighborhoods of Society Hill and Washington Square benefited from their proximity to revival and investment, those nearer to Broad Street would continue to decline. For the Royal Theater, high hopes wouldn’t be enough to overcome decade after decade of false starts, neglect and vandalism.

Royal Theater. Detail of “15th and South Streets, December 27, 1937,” by Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory)

Today, what remains of the Royal Theater’s exterior is a handsome façade that’s little more than a canvas for murals echoing fifty years of faded memory. From the 1920s through the 40s, the Royal called itself “America’s Finest Colored Photoplay House” and hosted live performances with Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Pearl Bailey and Count Basie. That was then. What remains inside now is damaged almost beyond recognition, a hardhat site for even the most hopeful displays of hipster creative culture.

15th and South Streets, December 27, 1937. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (See details enlarged above, left and below.)

Decades of optimism, good will, vision and nostalgia have kept a dream alive, though they haven’t added up to enough to wake the Royal Theater from its longtime coma. Money might have made a difference. And great sums were lined up to arrive for the Royal revival at the end of Rendell’s second term as Governor. Just a few years ago, this project promised a haul of $31 million from Harrisburg for music producer-turned developer Kenny Gamble to create the “Royal Theater and Universal Commercial Complex.”

Funding can do a lot, but in the end, money is not fungible with well-earned, authentic preservation success. We sometimes convince ourselves to the contrary, but money is no substitute for community.

Community is what made the Royal an original and enviable success. Three-quarters of a century ago, when photographer Wenzel J. Hess visited 15th and South Streets, the Royal Theater stood at the heart of a vibrant, thriving community. The glue that worked for the Royal Theater was the same glue that held together all of the other enterprises on that stretch of South Street: drug stores, hardware stores, pawnshops, diners and Chop Suey joints, dentists, tailors, barbers, bicycle shops and bars. It was about life—the lives of the folks who made  this community and the places they lived them. People and community made South Street. And when  community declined, so did the possibility of preservation success for the Royal Theater.

The inevitable has been coming, if in slow motion. Twenty-one years ago (1992) The Philadelphia Inquirer reports the Royal’s owner is seeking a demolition permit. Five years later (1997) the city Law Department sets out to sue that same owner for code violations that allowed the building to deteriorate. The following year (1998) the Preservation Alliance acquires the building to buy more time but sells the building two years later with no preservation guarantees. And two years ago, the Alliance puts the Royal Theater on its “Endangered Properties List” as the owner considers demolition and then, last year, possible sale.

How long are the statutes of limitations for wishful thinking? If this slow-motion slipping into oblivion continues for another seven years, the Royal Theater will have been empty and abandoned as long as it was open and thriving. Maybe that’s long enough to find a new reality.

Detail: Northwest corner, 15th and South Streets, December 27, 1937. Wenzel J. Hess, photographer. (PhillyHistory)