Philadlephians gathered at the Scottish Rite Cathedral, also known as Town Hall, for all kinds of events between the 1940s (when the Christian evangelist Hyman Jedidiah Appleman launched his crusade) and the 1970s (when Dr. Timothy Leary presented “An Evening of Standup Philosophy”). Most were musical. Just about everyone stopped by, from Miles Davis to Peter Paul and Mary; The Irish Rovers to The Doors; Pete Seeger to the Ahmad Jamal Trio. Bob Dylan started his set in October 1964 with The Times They Are A-Changin’.
Indeed, they were.
All that praying, philosophizing and singing made no difference when it came to the survival of Town Hall, a building whose developers, the Scottish Rite Masons, committed a cardinal sin in 1927 of locating the 1,900-seat, Art Deco structure north of Market Street. No amount of design savvy or best intentions by architect Horace W. Castor could overcome the sheer audacity of being at Broad and Race Streets. More than anything else, that dictated the difference between success and failure, appreciation and indifference, and, ultimately, the difference between preservation and demolition.
No matter that the Philadelphia Historical Commission designated this palace of performance as “worthy of preservation” in December 1973. Less than ten years later it would be sold to a parking lot mogul and, soon after, demolished and replaced by—you guessed it—a parking lot. Sure, the city needed more performance venues. The Pennsylvania Ballet needed studio and rehearsal space. John de Lancie, Director of the Curtis Institute of Music expressed distress at the prospect of a loss. He called it “one more blow to the organizations that try, against overwhelming financial odds, to achieve stability and provide cultural activities that a city of this size deserves.”
On the eve of destruction in March 1983 (so far as we know, Barry Maguire didn’t get to perform his song of the same name there) architect, planner and preservationist Maxwell Levinson described the imminent demolition “shocking. … With the present desperate need for a first-class Performing Arts Center in Philadelphia, the destruction of the Temple and its fine facilities is an outrage.”
All hope evaporated as the Historical Commission chose not to come to the building’s defense by implementing a six-month delay of demolition. The building “has gone beyond its usefulness,” explained one architectural history technician with the Commission. Demolition, the Inquirer reported, was “expected within the next ten days.”
The Inquirer’s architecture critic, Thomas Hine, stood out as one of the few voices in favor of preservation. “The choice between landmarks and parking seems simple on the face of it,” he observed. “There is no point in having plenty of parking if there is no place for you to go.”
But Hine, too, wavered. In an article offering a backhanded compliment in its headline: “A historic building, even this one, deserves a reprieve,” Hine conceded that although the Scottish Rite Temple “does have some attractive decoration near its cornice line…few would mourn the loss of the building.”
He noted that the Historical Commission fell down on two fronts. Not only did the Commission abstain from delaying the demolition permit “as allowed by the city’s historic preservation law” he pointed out that “city preservation and planning leaders did a walk through and agreed the interior of the building was in ‘terrible condition,’ that there were cracks in the wall that appeared “ominous.'”
“The decision may well have been correct,” wrote Hine, “but it does raise questions about the value of historic certification. If a quick look by a few city officials, none of whom were really qualified to judge the building structural integrity, is enough to undo certification, what is its value? … By voting a delay, the Historical Commission could have given an opportunity for anyone who might have an interest in the building to take a look, along with competent structural engineers and architects who could make an informed judgment on whether the building had a future.”
Stripped of all stewardship, with advocacy abandoned, the building had no future. A few months later, standing at the empty intersection, columnist Clark DeLeon reminisced about losing yet “another landmark.”
“They chipped away at it, foot by foot, filling the night sky with the glow of metal cutting torches, undoing the craftsmanship of the men who built the windowless fortress more than 55 years ago. And now on the same site where the stately structure once loomed, there is a sign that says, ‘Warning: Do not reverse over treadles. Tire damage.’”
Right. You can’t drive in reverse once you cross those spiky treadles. Nor can you undo a hasty, ill-informed demolition.
[Sources:Christopher Hepp, “Will Wrecker’s Ball Be Final Lot of Scottish Rite Cathedral?” Daily News, December 14, 1982; Gregory Byrnes “Town Hall to be sold; to be demolished,” Inquirer, December 14, 1982; Thomas Hine, “Town Hall set for demolition,” Inquirer March 5, 1983; Thomas Hine, “A historic building, even this one, deserves a reprieve.” Inquirer, March 13, 1983; John de Lancie, Director, Curtis Institute of Music – Letter to the Editor, Inquirer, April 9, 1983; Joe Clark, “Last Rites for Town Hall – Wreckers Come Knocking,” Daily News, June 8, 1983; Clark DeLeon, The Scene: another landmark gone,” Inquirer, September 23, 1983; Philadelphia Historical Commission file on the Scottish Rite Cathedral.]