The historic Uptown Theater, a long-abandoned cultural landmark on North Broad Street, briefly opened its doors today to unveil newly restored terracotta tile work on its striking Art Deco façade. The gorgeous, brightly colored tiles were crafted in Philadelphia by the Germantown-based Karen Singer Tileworks as part of a long-running redevelopment process that would convert a portion of the looming structure into leasable space to fund the renovation of the crumbling stage and seating area.
"We're so pleased that a local person and a woman-owned business had the ability to do the kind of work that's so necessary for the restoration of the theater," said Linda Richardson, executive director of the non-profit Uptown Entertainment Development Corporation.
Richardson led onlookers on a brief tour of the partially gutted building, revealing an old stairwell that was uncovered during construction. At the top of the stairs, the lobby's peeling Art Deco molding abruptly transitions into a darkened corridor lined with the familiar orange and white tile work of SEPTA's subway platforms.
"This is an opening for the Broad Street Subway," said Richardson, gesturing to the stairs. "The same year this [theater] was built, the Susquehanna-Dauphin platform was being completed...We've been engaging with SEPTA to reopen this subway entrance."
The direct connection between the busy subway line and the Uptown's lobby hints at the historic prominence the theater held in the surrounding neighborhood. Originally built as a Gilded Age movie palace, the 2,000-seat Uptown became a major stop on the "chitlin circuit," a loose term for performance venues that welcomed black patrons and artists during the era of segregation, as North Philadelphia became the cultural epicenter of the city's growing African-American community.
While renovation of the exterior and the commercial component of the theater is expected to continue with funding from city and HUD economic development grants, the massive auditorium carries a $5 million price tag for reuse. An active Uptown Theater remains a distant goal, but the gleaming facade is a step in the right direction for the hulking structure.
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