Philadelphia has a rich history of old movie palaces, recalling a time when countless cinemas dotted the urban landscape. Back in their heyday, these theaters offered an escape from the humdrum of daily life, and perhaps more importantly during the summer, they provided air conditioning. Unfortunately, our fair city has an equally rich history of demolition of said theaters, with an astonishing number of old theaters now lost forever or altered beyond all recognition.

The Leader Theatre at 4102-04 Lancaster Ave. was hidden in plain sight for years, seemingly lost but merely covered by unfortunate cladding. The Leader was a stage theater upon construction in 1912 before becoming a movie theater later on. Like many theaters across the city, it went out of commission before navigating its way through a slew of other businesses that inhabited the building. We visited the site back in 2020 when the cladding was finally removed, shocked at the relatively good condition of its historic facade. We returned almost exactly a year ago to find that no additional work had been started.

But thanks to a head’s up from one of our amazing readers, we now know that things are afoot for this grand old theater. After browsing through zoning documents, it appears the theater will be fixed up and turned into artist studios and workspaces. As you can see below, it looks like new windows have already been installed.

In the recent past, with the gorgeous edifice covered up
Zoning documents show that artist studios will fill the Lancaster Ave. side
Leader Theatre in the past
4112 Lancaster Ave. in the past, sporting a mural and not much else
View of the theater portion of the building along 41st St.

While plans for the giant back portion of the theater remain a mystery, it is exciting to know that the facade along Lancaster Ave. will be restored. ISA is leading the design charge here, and as always, we are excited to see what they have in store. This outcome is extra exciting, as this building is not locally protected, though it was added to the National Register of Historic Places back in 2021. We have to think this was an effort to procure some historic tax credits. Still, score one for preservation where the expected outcome in this case would be demolition.

This isn’t the only exciting development news for this block. Just up the street, 4112 Lancaster Ave. is making moves. When we last visited here a year ago, the old building on-site was demolished, and we knew that a 37-unit building was on the way from developers Constellar and Donovan Architects. This building is a privately-owned affordable housing development, with all units earmarked for folks making between 20-60% of the local area median income (AMI) – a huge victory for affordable housing advocates. Steel is now above ground and things are in full swing on site.

The property today, with the steel frame and cores now rising
A rendering of the 37-unit building
Past view of 4200 Lancaster Ave.

Just a little further up past 42nd St., 4200 Lancaster Ave. is making a turn to residential. Formerly a brick building that wasn’t turning any heads, a 15-unit building to be named Nova Commons is rising on this CMX-2 zoned lot. The development team is also utilizing the green roof bonus and a payment to the affordable housing fund to get to their current unit count. Things are well underway for this design from DesignBlendz, which will also include ground floor commercial space on the corner.

Current look at the corner of 42nd & Lancaster
A rendering approximating what we'll see once complete

Over 50 new units and artist studio space in a gorgeous old theater sure sounds like an upgrade for any block in town, let alone one that isn’t in the heart of Center City. The reinvention of West Philly continues to move forward, full steam ahead.