The Secret Above the Grocery Store: The Girard Theatre
Designed by John Bailey McElfatrick, the Girard Avenue Theatre opened in 1891. Barely over a decade later, it was gutted by a fire in 1903 caused by electrical wiring which did $25,000 worth of damage to the building. The next year it was rebuilt, but went bankrupt roughly ten years later.
The Girard Avenue Theatre reopened in 1919 with the Keith Vaudeville Exchange headlining. According to a terrific history by Hidden City, it featured ““high-class vaudeville” acts (as opposed to the Summer Stock and Minstrel Shows the theater previously held) until the structure was converted, following a design by Ballinger architects, to a movie house in 1927. Rumor has it that around this time a teenaged Milton Berle worked at the theater.”
As the economy of the surrounding neighborhood declined, the Girard Theatre showed movies on a single screen, and as much of the area was demolished in the Urban Renewal period in the 1960s, it closed and Klein’s Self-Serv Market opened in the lobby in 1967. Years passed and the marquee and ornamentation on the facade were removed, leaving a listless, anonymous brick hulk of a building that barely gave any impression of what its former life had been.
There’s a certain feeling you get when you’re in a place you can tell almost nobody has been in for decades, a sort of temporal overlapping of what it once was and what it has become. The Girard Theatre had been inaccessible since the late 1960s, forgotten, with a little supermarket slapped together on the first floor. Did people who shopped there ever feel it around them? Do people ever look at the banal little constructs in their ordinary lives and wonder if perhaps they only exist in the mouth of something much grander that has laid dormant for decades? I’m not a superstitious person, but places do have a presence and the echoes were certainly there if you looked at the columns or rim of the mezzanine in the supermarket. I think we often interpret things as what we see and not much more or less, so maybe it’s doubtful that anyone would have sensed the rest of the building, but those sorts of questions do haunt me.
The Girard Theatre was unceremoniously demolished in 2019, with Philadelphia’s traditional lack of effort to document or acknowledge its part in the city’s past. The theater slept for half a century, forgotten – and awoke for a moment to the sunlight as its walls were torn away, then was gone forever. These photos are from those last days.