Lower Merion’s business districts are disproportionately populated with older properties. This is particularly true of the township’s “traditional main streets.” The design of these locales is a reflection of the amenities they have traditionally provided, including commuter train service, myriad retail establishments, social gathering places, and proximity to residential neighborhoods. The Comprehensive Plan recommends strategies for preserving and enhancing the township’s main streets. These strategies include permanently protecting and adaptively reusing significant anchor buildings, creating guidelines to enhance storefront design, requiring new development to be compatible in size and scale with surrounding buildings, discouraging the demolition of buildings that contribute to a main street’s traditional character, and creating or revitalizing civic spaces within or near main street centers. Two commercial properties on this year’s WatchList can benefit from these strategies.
The Comprehensive Plan also includes recommendations for a strategy that could potentially aid in the preservation of a historic commercial building located in the township’s “Regional Center” along the southern end of City Avenue.
Bala Theatre (The Egyptian):
157 Bala Avenue, Bala Cynwyd
Architects: W. H. Hoffman and Paul J. Henon
One of the region’s most extraordinary historic theatres is located at the eastern edge of Lower Merion. This theatre, the Bala, is a holdover from a period that witnessed the proliferation of grand movie palaces on American main streets. When the theatre opened in 1927, the Philadelphia Inquirer lauded it as “unique among houses in this city.” The original name of the theatre, the “Egyptian,” was an expression of its design, which, the Inquirer noted, suggested an “ancient temple.” With room to seat 1500 moviegoers, the Bala Theatre was unquestionably a destination.
The Bala Theatre has been closed since 2014. The lack of a use for the Bala is unsettling; its vacancy threatens its condition and is a conspicuous indicator of Bala Avenue’s decline. In addition, for residents of the area, the empty theatre space represents the loss of a community establishment.
The rehabilitation and reuse of the theatre, however, can support a renaissance within the commercial district. Despite insensitive development at its north end, Bala Avenue still has the potential to thrive as a traditional main street. The area already includes many advantages, including a historic commuter rail station, unique and attractive mixed-used buildings, a pedestrian friendly streetscape, and an inviting communal open space – the Cynwyd Heritage Trail – that is the envy of the region. The Comprehensive Plan recommends strategies for using these assets to create a true sense of place in Bala, with the theatre at its heart.
38 W. Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore
Architect: Stuckert & Co.
The Ardmore Theatre was constructed in 1922. By 1926, its owner noted that the theatre had “come to be regarded as an institution on the Main Line.” Until 2002, when it was converted to a sports club, the theatre could rightly be characterized as a landmark in the community. It not only anchored the Ardmore commercial district; as a popular attraction, it also nurtured a sense of community and place.
The Lower Merion Conservancy placed the theatre on its WatchList in 2016. At the time, it had been vacant for two years. The theatre’s recent occupation by a retail business is welcome and fortunate; the tenancy of the space discourages neglect (which is often an outcome of vacancy) and contributes to the viability of the business district. The theatre, however, should ultimately be occupied by a use that is consistent with its history as a public gathering space. The design of the theatre, which includes a recessed entrance, flanking retail spaces, and an elegant façade, reflects this history. Although the building may never reopen as movie palace, it has the potential to serve, as it did in the past, as the anchor of a vibrant downtown Ardmore. The Comprehensive Plan recommends strategies for achieving this vision. One strategy is to preserve and reuse significant historic anchor buildings in commercial districts. Another is to reevaluate nearby zoning so that future development is compatible with the scale and character of traditional main streets. Implementing these strategies can aid the broader goal of creating a distinctive, enticing, and pedestrian-friendly business district in Ardmore.
The WCAU Television Studio is one of township’s most important, yet least acknowledged historic buildings. The Comcast-owned building occupies a parcel at the south end of City Avenue in an area the township has identified as a “Regional Center.” Its location in a monotonous sea of newer office and commercial buildings, however, belies its history. The WCAU Studio (which is currently known as the NBC 10 Studio) was the first building in America purposely designed to serve as a television studio. George Howe, the building’s distinguished architect, ensured that the studio’s design reflected this lofty achievement. For the building, Howe (who is famed for his modernist commissions, and in particular, Philadelphia’s PSFS Building) conceived a sleek glass and metal design that scholars now regard as a significant representation of mid-century architecture.
Recently-enacted zoning on City Avenue likely threatens the survival of the historic WCAU property. This zoning creates opportunities for new development that may result in the studio’s demolition. Yet, the area’s new zoning also has the potential to encourage the building’s preservation. The zoning, which increases density allowances and permits mixed-use, creates opportunities for incorporating the WCAU Studio into a creatively-designed development. In fact, a plan that sensitively integrates this mid-century composition into a new project would lend great visual interest to the lower end of City Avenue. It would also differentiate the WCAU site from the characterless development that surrounds it. A plan of this type would meet a primary objective of the Comprehensive Plan, which is to improve the pedestrian experience along the City Avenue corridor.