Divine Lorraine at center of Philly developer's plans for North Broad Street
October 18, 2012By Elizabeth Fiedler
Photos by Emma Lee for NewsWorks
It's much more fun and interesting to think in terms of ideas and then work hard to make the economics make sense so that you can implement them.
—Eric Blumenfeld, developer
Hope is alive for the Divine Lorraine Hotel, the historic Philadelphia building on North Broad Street that has long stood vacant.
After years of failed attempts to revitalize the iconic structure, one man says he's determined to bring it back and realize a failed dream that's haunted him.
The bones of the once-glamorous Divine Lorraine Hotel are still there inside the towering building. But the furniture and fixtures are gone, and the walls are tagged with graffiti.
The floors are covered in rubble and wood — and pocked with holes big enough for your leg could slide through. None of it stops Eric Blumenfeld.
"Seriously, how cool is this?" says the developer during a tour as he trudges up flight after flight of stairs — in apparel better suited for a boardroom.
"The first time I bought this building, I think it was nine years ago. I bought it from Tony Goldman, who recently passed. And Tony was always kind of an inspiration to me," Blumenfeld says. "He was nuts like me and ... really believed that he could wake up every day and transform. So, that's kind of what I want to do when I grow up."
There's no glass in the windows — a cooling breeze blows straight through the wide open spaces. Blumenfeld is contemplating 125 apartments for the space.
"But some of the spaces are so cool that I'm maybe thinking of increasing the amount of two-bedroom units and that would probably tweak down our count," he says.
Blumenfeld vows to expose as much of the building's character and history as possible.
Past attempts to rescue building sputtered
Others have tried to help the decrepit hulk of a building — even Blumenfeld, who points to a building just south on Broad he also worked on.
"The first building I bought was this building. I was always kind of reaching beyond my grasp, and I purchased the 640 building shortly thereafter. I stood right over there with my bankers and they cornered me and said, 'We believe in you, but you have to pick one.'"
So he was forced to choose between a project farther south on Broad Street and the Divine Lorraine.
"There was a group of investors that really wanted to buy the Divine Lorraine and I kept saying, 'It's not for sale, it's not for sale.' And they said, 'What if we paid you twice what you paid for it?' And I said, at the time, 'When are we closing?' " he recounts. "And I have always been haunted by that day because I don't really care about money."
Blumenfeld watched while the Divine Lorraine sat, month after month after month, vacant.
Looking up at his beloved Lorraine, he says he's not the smartest business guy in the world.
"I think in terms of ideas and, of course, they have to make economic sense — otherwise I'll cease to exist," he says. "But it's much more fun and interesting to think in terms of ideas and then work hard to make the economics make sense so that you can implement them. This is like a — I get another chance here and I think I'm a little more seasoned this round."
Blumenfeld doesn't have his sights set just on the Divine Lorraine. Like many, he sees the Divine Lorraine as the key to North Broad Street's revitalization — given its prime location between City Hall and Temple University.
Downstairs — in the lobby just a few minutes earlier — Blumenfeld had presented his pitch to a group of interested parties.
"We're trying to kind of figure out the original DNA of this building and what we've uncovered is that, originally when it was built in 1892, there was a speakeasy below here," he says. "So in the corner of the building on the south side of the Broad Street entry, there was actually a stair that went downstairs."
A trigger for redeveloping neighborhood?
Blumenfeld's dreams go beyond the walls of the Divine Lorraine. He suggests an NBA practice facility for the Philadelphia '76ers could go next door, just up Broad Street, and an education campus could be built nearby. His big dreams could scare some off.
One believer is Ken Scott, President of the Beech companies and vice chairman of the Avenue of the Arts. He was at the Divine Lorraine with Blumenfeld and others looking around because his nonprofit organization is dedicated to the redevelopment of North Central Philadelphia.
Does Scott really think this time all the talk of redeveloping the Divine Lorraine will actually come to fruition?
"There's been some problems in the past, but I see viable plans," Scott says. "And North Broad Street has a lot of energy. I don't see any reason why it can't move forward. There's always concerns. The economy — who knows? It could be another recession. I mean there's always those kind of possibilities, but hopefully not."
Blumenfeld estimates it will take $47 million to fix up the Divine Lorraine. And he's already pitching for public dollars.
Among the group gathered to listen to Blumenfeld's plans was George Farrell, special assistant to the chief of staff for state Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia.
"We're going to be fighting to bring dollars back to Philadelphia regardless, especially when it's a project that brings education, players from the community together," Farrell says. "It'll create jobs and it'll create a better corridor on our district and that's what people in Harrisburg are looking for when they're thinking of sending state dollars to Philadelphia. That's what we're looking for when we're fighting for this."
After so many others have failed, Blumenfeld says there's one word he refuses to tolerate.
"I don't like when people say 'hope' because it's a definite. It's not a hope anymore. We've got this tiger by the tail," he says. "This is happening."
Many neighborhood residents won't believe it until they see it.