An exceptional piece of architectural wrought ironwork and an important piece of Philadelphia history. This is an original section of the mezzanine railing from the Uptown Theatre on North Broad St.
The Uptown was built as an Art Deco movie palace in 1928 and opened in February of 1929, the theater was one one of the first in the city built for talking pictures. It was "the crowing achievement of architects Magaziner, Eberhard & Harris" (Glazerr, p 61). Designed by Louis Magaziner, the firm's lead architect, the Uptown consisting of a five-story brick office building facing Broad St, with the auditorium at the rear, the building is unprepossessing from the outside, but the interior was a lavish riot of Art Deco design. The front doors of the theater lead into a narrow vestibule, with a second set of doors opening into the foyer, a two-story space which opened directed into the auditorium at the lower level and onto the Promenade above. One the wall above the front doors, overlooking this tall but narrow space was a riotous Art Deco mural of a hunt scene, and surrounding the upper level was a railing of red marble and wrought iron, the iron panels separated by marble posts and repeating the same stylized foliate motif.
This piece is one of those panels. The can be seen clearly in the photographs on page 61 and 62 of the definitive "Philadelphia Theaters". Their design consists of a heavy diagonal cross-member which divides the panel into two triangular spaces (and sets up a rhythm among the repeated panels). The left side is filled with curled iron bars with resemble vine tendrils. The right contains a number of lead forms and an iron spiral with a a zig-zag design to the outer edge, evoking a fern. The center segment is bordered by two verticals with the same zig-zag motif. The top border is empty but for a pair of x's.
It is, even by itself and out of context, a striking piece of Art Deco design, and the quality of the construction and workmanship are amazing .
While The Uptown was was one the vanguard architecturally and technologically, and while it is one of the few remaining movie palaces in Philadelphia, that is not what makes it historically important. It's place was set by the theater's history from 1951-1978, when it was owned by Sam Stiefel, who owned theaters in Baltimore and Washington, DC, which served as major stops on the Chitlin' Circuit, the African-American live performance circuit which started as the black answer to the white vaudeville circuits in the 1890s and which eventually served black musical acts in the 20th century.
The Apollo in New York City is the best-known theater on the circuit, and the Uptown was the Philly version. It played host to every major Blue, Rhythm and Blues, and Soul act you can think of in the 50's, 60s and 70s, and was of course the local stop for the Motown package tours. From 1958 into the 1970s, shows were hosted by the Uptown's MC: DJ, radio personality and civil rights advocate Georgie Woods.
I don't really think it is possible to overstate the importance had to the people of North Philly, to the black community of Philadelphia, and to the city as a whole during its golden age in the second half of the twentieth century.
Size: 23" wide by 27.75" tall.
Condition: fine. A couple of paint losses which appear to be recent (probably from transit or handling). Where the paint has been chipped off, it's clear that the piece is currently covered with several layers of black glossy enamel paint. But the base layer appears to be a very thin coating of a bronze-gold colored paint, which is likely the original color (see pics).
Provenance: From the collection of the Old Original Bookbinders restaurant, who attached the plaque on the bottom rail which reads, "Uptown Theater 1920" (no idea how they got the date wrong).
Reference: Glazer, Irvin R, "Philadelphia Theaters: A Pictorial Architectural History", Dover, 1994.
Item ID: 3158
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