There was a time when Philadelphia was home to hundreds of classic cinema houses and movie theatres. Shawn Evans of The Philly History Blog tells that during the silent film boom of the 1920s, Philly was prime location for the transporting new experience of movie watching. Evans tells that 275 movie theatres were opened leading up to 1932. But as the Great Depression coincided with the end of the silent era, these grand and opulent theatres became an endangered species. Today, mainstream theatre-going largely occurs in hulking multiplexes with sticky floors and Colin Farrell posters. To wit, the UA Riverview Plaza Stadium 17 stands at 1400 Columbus Blvd. as a testament to just how dramatically the movie-going experience has changed.
It is perhaps appropriate that the Riverview invokes a sense of cinema’s industrialization. Indeed, for more than a century before its construction, the site on which it currently stands was used for industrialization of a less metaphorical kind. As shown in the image here below, taken from G.W. Bromley’s 1895 Philadelphia Atlas, the plaza facing out to Columbus Blvd and contained between Water, Reed and Dickinson Streets was once a lumber yard.
By 1910, two separate companies shared the lot; the H.J. McNally Lumber yard and the Eliz. J. Brown Lumber Yard. While little information is available online regarding either company, evidence suggests that they both stored and sold wood. Here below, a pair of Department of Records photos from 1913 confirm this suspicion.
The photo immediately above shows the lumber yard looking westward from the Northwest corner of Dickinson. Note the conspicuous absence of I-95, whose insertion in the 1960s would all but eliminate the neighborhood in the background. The lumber yard would be gone well before I-95’s arrival, replaced at some juncture prior to 1942 by the Binder Cooperage Company. Binder is shown here below in a Department of Records photo from 1959.
The same year as the photo taken here above, according to the details of a 1960 legal contest involving the cooperage, Binder’s Philadelphia operation was acquired by a Delaware-based company. The cooperage is shown in the image here below, taken from the Work Progress Administration’s 1962 Land Use Map, just before it ceased operation at its Delaware Ave location.
Today, the United Artists’ Riverview movie theatre is every bit as glamorous as the Cooperage and Lumber Yards that came before it, though with only a fraction of the wood. The Riverview is so-named because of the incredible vista it provides just to its east. Directly across the rails which still run down the middle of Columbus, once stood the American Sugar Refinery and, subsequently, the Franklin Sugar Refinery Warehouses. Today, in its place stands a big scary marsh of tall grass and sundry items expelled onto the shore by the Delaware River.