A call to rescue the historic Seville Theater, a center of Bryn Mawr community life since 1926, inspired the creation of the innovative film exhibition and education center, Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
That call, sounded in 2002 by Juliet J. Goodfriend (shortly to become BMFI’s founding president and executive director), was answered by a group of like-minded civic and academic leaders equally alarmed at the prospective conversion of the derelict—but beloved—theater to a health club franchise.
After seemingly endless zoning hearing board meetings and fundraising events, the newly incorporated nonprofit, 501(c)(3), Bryn Mawr Film Institute purchased the building in December 2004 and began a decade-long restoration, renovation, and expansion project. With great community support, the theater complex today boasts four state-of-the-art theaters, classrooms, community gathering space, a café, and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Seville Theater was built in 1926 to emulate the big city movie palaces, with ornate chandeliers, intricate ceiling details, a dramatic sky-lit atrium, and an exotic name all contributing to the immersive film experience. The architect, William Harold Lee (1884-1971) was a Philadelphia designer of 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 design. With its still-intact façade and atrium, Bryn Mawr Film Institute retains one of the highest levels of integrity of this group.
By the 1950’s, the Seville had come to be known as the Bryn Mawr Theater. While the original configuration of the interior remained unchanged, the glamour had faded. In the atrium, the once-glorious skylight and second story arcade were concealed beneath an 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.
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 award-winning firm of Voith Mactavish Architects, LLP developed a Master Plan that outlined a three-phased restoration and modernization strategy. Phase I began as soon as BMFI took possession of the building: the lobby was refurbished; new projection and sound equipment was installed; the electrical and heating systems were modernized; and 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 installation of an elevator accessing a new multimedia education space created on second floor, culminating in the restoration of the stunning atrium skylight.
Phase III introduced two additional state-of-the art, 163-seat theaters with stadium seating, large-format screens, and high definition digital projectors. The two previously existing theaters were also renovated with new seats, lighting, carpeting, screens, and fixtures, and sound and light buffers.
BMFI celebrated the completion of the final phase of renovation and expansion with the ACTION! Dedication Celebration on Sunday, April 27, 2014, and marked the end of the $10 million renovation and expansion project. The final $5.5 million phase doubled the number of available screens and is the culmination of the organization’s twelve-year mission to protect, renovate, and expand the historic 1926 theater building.
On April 22, 2017, Bryn Mawr Film Institute raised a glass in cheers and thanks to its founder and president, Juliet Goodfriend, at the Leading Ladies Gala, in appreciation for her 15 years of leadership. Goodfriend assumed the role as the Chair of the Board, and Samuel Scott, former Chair of the Board, became Goodfriend’s successor as the current Executive Director in June 2017.