We were making our way from North Broad Street to Northern Liberties the other day, and decided to take the path less traveled, taking Germantown Avenue pretty much the whole way. As we sojourned, Leo’s Apparel at 2705 Germantown Ave. caught our eye. We noticed this business not because we need a new suit (though that’s probably a good idea too), but because of the somewhat unusual nature of its signage. The sign for the business looks like it used to be a marquee. The entrance to the store looks like it might have once been a space for a ticket booth in an old timey movie theater. And we love old timey movie theaters, and we were hopeful that we had stumbled upon one.
Doing some research, we learned that this place is, in fact, not an old movie theater. But there’s some old movie theater history in the immediate area which we thought was pretty interesting. First, the two-story Deco building occupied by Leo’s (and originally known as the Hess Building) was constructed on the site of an old theater called the Lehigh Palace, which closed in 1929. More fascinating is that another theater, known for most of its life as the Avenue Theater, stood immediately next door to the Hess building, initially opening as a nickelodeon in 1912. The Avenue moniker came into use starting in 1932, as the place showed last-run movies that came over from the Uptown Theater on North Broad. This theater stuck around longer than any other North Philly movie theater, ultimately closing in 1984 after a three-alarm fire. A new building was built in its place some years later, and it’s now painted green and occupied by a thrift store.
Looking at the old image of the Avenue Theater, we have to think that the Hess Building was constructed at a scale that was perfectly compatible with its next door neighbor. Further, the entrance to the retail space on Germantown (which has apparently been a clothing store for many years) looks like it was modeled after the entrance to the movie theater, including the matching marquee. When both buildings were around, it created a cool effect and made the two buildings and businesses feel like they were parts of a greater whole. With the theater now gone for more than three decades, the entrance to the clothing store offers a mirror to the past, reflecting its missing twin and misleadingly suggesting a former use that ultimately led us down the path to discover the history next door.