Bryn Mawr Film Institute


Bryn Mawr Film Institute, a 501(c)(3) non profit Pennsylvania corporation, was founded in 2002 by civic and academic leaders interested in saving the Bryn Mawr Theater, once the anchor of the Bryn Mawr commercial district. A center of community life since 1926, the theater suffered from disrepair and neglect, and was threatened with conversion to a health club franchise.

March 12, 2005: Sir Ben Kingsley opens Bryn Mawr Film Institute with Executive Director Juliet Goodfriend

After spearheading a successful effort to stop the conversion, Bryn Mawr Film Institute purchased the building in December 2004 for $2 million and began a three-phase renovation and restoration program that will be complete by 2014, and which will result in the final design and programmatic activities making full use of the new space. To date, $6 million has been raised for operations and capital expenses through a combination of fundraising, membership, and grants with an additional $5.5 million being raised through a final campaign.

Circa 1926: The Seville Theater

The Theater Building

When the theater was built in 1926 it was known as The Seville, and was designed to emulate the movie palaces found in large cities. Ornate lobby chandeliers, intricate ceiling details, the beautiful sky-lit atrium, and the name itself all contributed to the film immersion experience.

The architect of the theater, William Harold Lee (1884-1971) was a Philadelphia architect who designed over 200 theaters, most of which no longer exist. The Seville was one of six movie houses built along the Main Line in the 1920's. Four of the six still exist as movie theaters, in varying degrees of alteration from their original designs. With its still-intact façade and atrium, Bryn Mawr Film Institute retains one of the highest levels of integrity of this group.

Circa 1950: Bryn Mawr Theater
By the 1950's, The Seville had come to be known as the Bryn Mawr Theater. While the configuration of the interior remained virtually unchanged, much of the glamour began to fade. In the atrium, the once-glorious skylight and second story arcade were concealed beneath a dropped acoustical tile ceiling. On the façade, the original marquee was replaced with a larger, neon version.

Any remaining original splendor of the 1920's movie house was lost in 1978 when the auditorium was divided into two smaller theaters. Yet another marquee was installed that bore no relationship to the original marquee and was in jarring contrast to the classical façade.

Circa 1978: Bryn Mawr Theater
Increased competition from the new multiplex theaters meant dwindling audiences for the Bryn Mawr Theater during the 1990's. When the national theater chain that managed the theater went bankrupt in 2001, it looked as though the building would be leased by a gym franchise. The alterations required to convert the building to a gym meant it would never again function as a movie theater.

That's when the campaign for Bryn Mawr Film Institute began.

The preservation and restoration of the theater building is an integral part of BMFI's mission. In addition to the historic importance of the building, the proven power of a downtown movie theater to drive economic development and stimulate job creation in surrounding restaurants and retail businesses makes a movie theater essential for older town centers.

March 12, 2006: A new marquee was installed to celebrate BMFI's first anniversary
The award-winning firm of Voith Mactavish Architects, LLP developed a Master Plan that outlined a three-phase restoration and modernization strategy. Phase I renovations began as soon as BMFI took possession of the building: the lobby was refurbished; new projection and sound equipment were installed; the electrical and heating systems were modernized; a new café was built. Phase I was completed in March, 2005 when the new, historically resonant marquee was installed. Renovations continued in Phase II with the creation of the multimedia education space, culminating in the restoration of the stunning atrium skylight.

Building improvements completed during 2005-2008 include:

Phase I

  • Building preserved as a cinema
  • Projection equipment upgraded
  • Improved sound equipment
  • Lobby refurbished
  • Creation of a full-service café space
  • New roof installed
  • New electrical and water services
  • New fire protection system
  • New marquee installed

Phase II (Pane Campaign)

  • New elevator installed
  • Four new accessible restrooms
  • State-of-the-art multimedia room
  • Skylight's protective monitor rebuilt
  • Skylight and plaster restoration completed
  • New HVAC for arcade

Phase III will involve creating a third theater and completing building upgrades.

  • Three auditoria will be made from the current two
  • New HVAC will be installed in theaters
  • New fire protection/sprinklers will be added to theaters
  • New seats and lighting will be installed
  • New projection booth to service all three theaters will be constructed
  • New projection digital projection equipment will be purchased
  • Restrooms on first floor will be redesigned and renovated
  • Concession stand will be redesigned

The building has been awarded a position on the National Register of Historic Places and has been recognized by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission with a $90,000 Keystone Historic Preservation Grant to help finance the restoration of the glass skylight over the atrium. The theater has won many historical preservation awards for different phases of the renovation, including two from the Lower Merion Township Historical Commission and a 2009 Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

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