When I first moved to Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, a decade ago, I was immediately intrigued by the grand façade of the old theater in the center of town. Lansdowne, a small borough two miles southwest of Philadelphia, has the usual collection of dry cleaners and fast-food franchises, but the 1927 Spanish Revival theater stood out, both in its sense of quiet grandeur and the dark absence that radiated from its lobby. As a chronicler of abandoned places, I had to learn more. After a few calls and emails, I arranged to meet with Matt Schultz, CEO of the nonprofit Historic Lansdowne Theater Corporation. It’s always an amazing feeling when you finally get the opportunity to visit and photograph a place you’ve been curious about for months. The Lansdowne Theater didn’t disappoint: the red, gold, and blue auditorium boasted a spectacular 270-light-bulb chandelier, a tattered but regal curtain over the stage, and antique projectors still in the projectionist’s booth. As Schultz told me about the nonprofit’s goal to turn the theater into a music venue, I couldn’t help but notice what a massive job he had ahead of him.
While the light fixtures and frescoes were gorgeous, three decades of vacancy had left water-damaged plasterwork and holes in the ceiling that would take millions to repair. Schultz was much more pragmatic and business-savvy than most people I’ve met who buy abandoned properties with the hopes of restoring them—and I’ve met quite a few, often with little more than passion and a dream. Over 16 long years, Schultz had put together a solid board for the corporation, solicited the support of state lawmakers, courted volunteers and donors, and commissioned architectural studies.