Written by Melissa Jest
Philadelphia radio legend and civil rights activist Georgie Woods called the historic Uptown Theater “the grand jewel of entertainment for Black America." Today, the Uptown nears the completion of an exterior terra cotta restoration that returns the ornate Art Deco façade to its former glory.
“The Art Deco style is connected to the cultures of the Mediterranean, [Native] Indians and of Africa,” said Linda Richardson, President of the Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation (UEDC) which owns the Uptown Theater. “And the building has the connection of African American culture based on what happened inside. We’re trying to preserve both.”
The Uptown terra cotta restoration is part of the first phase of the Uptown Theater’s overall restoration/rehabilitation project. This $2.2 million preservation effort ends this summer with the installation of restored and recreated terra cotta tiles. According to Ms. Richardson, the woman-owned restoration firm, Karen Singer Tileworks of Philadelphia, conducted painstaking research and paint analysis to identify the materials and methods used to repair and recreate the signature terra cotta. “Artisans who do this kind of work are either in California or Europe. So we are pleased to have uncovered this hidden talent right here in Philly,” said Ms. Richardson.
UEDC projects a total of $10 million to get the 1929 theater up and running. The effort has received $3.5 million in pledges. For more information or to donate, visit the Uptown website.
Fundraising continues as UEDC identifies other areas of work in this first phase such as the repair and renovation of the theater’s six-story tower. The tower, built into the south elevation, offers 19,000 square feet of interior space. Ms. Richardson said the renovated space will be fitted with new electrical, plumbing and computer infrastructure to suit the needs of a variety of entrepreneurs and artists. UEDC has compiled a database of 20 potential tenants ranging from caterers to music producer-promoters. The creation of such rental spaces aligns with UEDC mission to stimulate the economy of North Philadelphia and revitalize surrounding neighborhoods.
The Uptown Theater, built in 1929 on Broad Street in North Philadelphia, was the hub of the city's African-American pop culture scene. It was at the Uptown that Philly DJ Georgie Woods hosted his star-studded shows to sold-out crowds and where he also raised awareness and support for the growing civil rights issues of the 1950s and 60s.
Planning for the next phase of the Uptown project has begun with documentation of the 2,040-seat theater and its remaining historic fabric.
Melissa Jest is the neighborhood coordinator for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and a Partners in the Field representative for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.