Neighbors say renovating Philly's Divine Lorraine is key to developing North Broad Street
March 1, 2012By Elizabeth Fiedler
It's a magnificent piece of architecture. It's something that could not be duplicated today and if it could be saved that would be great because these are the sorts of buildings and monuments that really speak to the history of the city and to our past and what this neighborhood was at one time.
—Penelope Giles, Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation
Philadelphia has many vacant old buildings, but few inspire as much speculation and awe as the Divine Lorraine.
In 2006, an investor group bought the 1894 building with plans to rehab it. Instead, the economy tanked and the owners now owe the city $1.4 million in back taxes.
Many still think it could spark a transformation of its section of north Broad Street.
Standing in the shadow of the Divine Lorraine, Ben Leech, the director of advocacy at the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, sizes up the great dilapidated hulk.
"When you see it, you know exactly where you are," Leech said. "It defines a streetscape. It embodies the history of North Broad and of the city."
Leech remembers the first time he saw the Divine Lorraine: "I was coming down Ridge, and I just see this thing at the end of the horizon."
Leech says here's just something special about this huge graffiti-covered shell, one of the oldest apartment buildings surviving in the city, a grand structure.
"It was designed by Willis Hale, who was a contemporary of Frank Furness," said Hale. "He was sort of the architect of choice for the nouveau riche who were making North Broad sort of the 'it' neighborhood. He's sort of famous for this really over-the-top sort of Victorian 'more is more' style of architecture that's really ornate."
Leech says the building's rich history, too, lends it significance.
"It was built as the Lorraine Apartments and then evolved into a hotel," said Leech. "By the 1940s, it was purchased by Father Divine, who's this sort of controversial, really interesting, figure in sort of the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. He purchased it for use as a non-segregated hotel for his followers and others, but it was one of the integrated hotels in the city, one of the first in the country, really, for a high-class hotel."
Leech and others think the Divine Lorraine's rehabilitation could kick-start a renaissance in this part of Philadelphia. A glance south on Broad Street and there's City Hall. Just north of the Divine Lorraine is Temple University. And as development has crept up Broad toward the dilapidated building, many have hoped the Divine Lorraine's time would come.
And it's not just preservationists and history buffs talking.
Sean Curry works with the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation as maintenance coordinator. "Basically we just keep the neighborhood clean," Curry said. "That's my job."
Looking up at the Divine Lorraine, the lifelong neighborhood resident remembers the building's better days. "I grew up in Holiness Church, and we used to have our banquets down here," Curry said. "I also used to visit here for Sunday dinners. They had two restaurants here and the grand ballroom. I've actually stayed in the hotel about three or four times."
Curry says it was quite grand even then. "I tell you it was just like another world to me," he said. "Just the fixtures alone, just the architecture. I just wish it was still open."
Even Mayor Michael Nutter used a recent speech to the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce to say that transforming the Divine Lorraine is a priority.
Frank Robinson would like to see that. He works for a social services organization called People for People, and he gets to see the Divine Lorraine everyday.
"We are just up the street from the Divine Lorraine, yes," Robinson said. "Just such a beautiful structure, but it's sad. We've been praying for something to happen. This is the gateway. This is the key to everything North Philadelphia, Northwest, so it would definitely change the plight of this neighborhood."
Running out of time
Robinson says for years he's watched the building move in the wrong direction. Now graffiti covers much of the boarded-up building.
The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia's Ben Leech, says this building has not reached the point of no return — yet.
"There should be a real sense of urgency that if we don't act now it might not have much more time," said Leech.
"This beautiful building is at the mouth of our corridor," said Penelope Giles, executive director of Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation. Giles was born and raised in the neighborhood and says a renovated Divine Lorraine could attract new residents to the city.
"It's a magnificent piece of architecture. It's something that could not be duplicated today and if it could be saved that would be great because these are the sorts of buildings and monuments that really speak to the history of the city and to our past and what this neighborhood was at one time."
After some tough times, Giles says the opening of new restaurants and other development in the area shows it's moving in the right direction.
"You know the cycle," Giles said. "When neighborhoods begin to lose their value, they begin to gain blight and crime and all of those things that make it even harder to revitalize a neighborhood."
Giles says the neighborhood's proximity to Center City, access to public transportation and other positives are already gaining attention from people who want to move back into the city.
The bank that financed the last deal for the Divine Lorraine is entertaining offers from new developers.