A new vision and critical repairs coming to historic Sedgwick Theater

by Walt Maguire
Posted 9/29/21

The Quintessence Theatre Group received a $500,000 state grant for major repairs to the historic building. State Senator Art Haywood (D-Montgomery/Philadelphia) presented the ceremonial check at a press conference at the theater September 8.

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A new vision and critical repairs coming to historic Sedgwick Theater

Posted

Quintessence wins long-
term lease, will expand
seating capacity

The Quintessence Theatre Group, which recently announced a 20-year lease on their home at the Sedgwick Theater at 7137 Germantown Avenue in Mt. Airy, just received a $500,000 state grant for major repairs to the historic building. State Senator Art Haywood (D-Montgomery/Philadelphia) presented the ceremonial check at a press conference at the theater September 8.

Quintessence, in residence at Sedgwick Theater, received a $500,000 grant from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) in 2020 to renovate, repair, and modernize. The theater group will be performing their 2021-2022 season at alternate venues around Northwest Philadelphia while extensive renovations are made.

The classic repertory theater was closed last season because of COVID restrictions, and produced a series of streaming performances from the space. Alex Burns, Artistic Director, explained that the building could not reopen to the public until significant upgrades were made to new standards for ventilation and additional electrical and plumbing issues that had developed over the years. At present, he said, the Sedgwick does not meet standards for Equity actors to work.

Quintessence occupies the front lobby areas of the original building. The first lobby section was originally open-air, with a ticket kiosk in the center. The middle lobby space was where patrons would wait in line to enter the theatre area. There had been a coat check room, bathrooms, and smoking lounges. Then there’s the third lobby.

“Quintessence has been performing in what was the grand, oval lobby,” said Burns. They have a 200-seat theatre space. After renovations, it will seat 225. The back wall of the performance space is 16 feet away from the back of the seating began for the original movie palace, and part of the plan is to add that section. The main auditorium beyond was gutted in the 1960s and has been a warehouse.

As Quintessence used the space over the first years, they were aware there were long-term problems. “What became pretty clear to us – and the city made us aware of this – the building wasn’t really up to code, from a contemporary standpoint.”

Working with Voith & Mactavish Architects LLP, they will bring the space up to city (and Equity) standards, and extend another 16 feet further in the building. The restructured theater will include a new HVAC and air filtration system; fire alarm system; fire-rated audience risers and seats; new lighting and wiring; private dressing rooms; and ADA-compliant restrooms.  Quintessence also plans to restore the lighted Art Deco marquee. 

“We're really happy that Quintessence will be able to deliver their brand of performance art for years to come in such an important anchor on the avenue,” said Bradley Maule, Communications Manager for the Mt. Airy CDC.

There is an application for a Mt. Airy Historic District designation in progress right now. If it passes, the Sedgwick will be at the center.

Because of its geographical position north of Germantown and south of Chestnut Hill, the Central Mt. Airy Commercial Historic District was not fully developed until after those two areas had reached much of their potential. While earlier change had been gradual and piecemeal, wholesale commercial development in the 1920s changed Mt. Airy, transforming it from a nineteenth-century village of shops within buildings erected for residential use to a retail center of purpose-built commercial buildings, many in the Art Deco style of the period.

Scott O’Barr is the project architect for Voith & Mactavish. “These buildings are actually almost like two buildings: the outer shell, which kind of kept the weather out. And then there are all these beautiful kind of plaster ceilings all within that. You have these great volumes as you go through the space. What's really amazing is the theater itself.”

O’Barr also happens to live a few blocks from the theater. “That part of Germantown Avenue where the theater is, is a lively kind of business district, which has continued to thrive. And I think I think that's not just about theater, it's about the community. A lot of people who are involved in the theater actually live in the neighborhood. So I think that is kind of what sets Quintessence apart from the rest.”

“We’re really excited,” said Burns. “Once we achieve this, the Sedgwick is going to be here as one of the preeminent performance venues in the city of Philadelphia for generations to come. And it will really give Quintessence a home base where we can really do great theatre.” They also hope to offer it for occasional rentals.

The theatre group will announce the construction start date in the coming weeks. 

Because of the work, their 12th season will be at other venues in the Northwest. “What we learned from COVID is that streaming doesn’t fulfill theatergoers expectations.” They’re still planning it out.

The Sedgwick, at 7137 Germantown Ave., was built in 1928 as a silent movie theater, one of a series designed by William H. Lee, and one of the few left. It was named for Sedgwick Tourison, part of the family that owned much of the local property at the time. It had 1600 seats, a large stage for occasional vaudeville nights, and an organ. According to the Chestnut Hill Herald of September 7, 1928, Helen Masters Shaplin was the first organist. {“She is a big favorite in Germantown and one of the best organists on the Stanley staff.”) It closed in 1966. The organ was rescued by the Delaware Valley Chapter of Theater Organ Enthusiasts.

In 1994 Betty Ann and David Fellner bought the space and opened the Mt. Airy Cultural Arts Center, a music venue and event space. (Bayard Lancaster performed there in 1998.) Quintessence (full name: Quintessence Theater in Residence at the Sedgwick Theater), moved into the space in 2010.

“When I came back to Philadelphia to build Quintessence, I really thought that the process of growing a regional theatre would be a lot faster,” said Burns. “What I’ve learned it that it is a long-game process, building relationships with audiences and patrons.” He feels this grant will be transformative.

The eventual hope is to restore the full auditorium, creating one of the largest theater auditoriums in the Northwest, but for now they need to get the existing space ready for next season.

“For us to pull this off, and the Quintessence to emerge as a regional theater, we hope people are inspired by the renovation, or by the idea 225 people will be coming into this neighborhood every night to support the restaurants and other businesses.”

Administered by the Office of the Budget, Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) is a Commonwealth grant program that supports regional economic, cultural, civic, recreational, and historical improvement projects. The awards are at the discretion of the Governor. Through the RACP process, Quintessence can apply each year for the next ten years to match yearly fundraising up to a total of $5 million.

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