Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Divine Lorraine Hotel

If the hopeful Jacob Adelman at the Inquirer is any indication, the Divine Lorraine might soon live up to its name. What do I mean? Well, with the Divine Lorraine's redevelopment possibly beginning this month, this will likely be the catalyst North Broad Street has long needed. 

Let's back up though. Like anything regarding the Divine Lorraine, it's easy to be skeptical. When the Divine Lorraine was occupied by the International Peace Movement Mission, it was a budget hotel with strange rules owned by an even stranger religious cult. It wasn't exactly signaling any key players to invest in North Broad. But it was keeping North Broad Street alive. Think of it as Market East's Strawbridge & Clothier. As soon as its doors were shuttered, an era was over, and the only thing capable of saving the corridor was massive reinvention. 

Since the Divine Lorraine closed its doors in 2000, it became nothing but an old building in a bad part of town no developers wanted anything to do with. For several years, a lone member of the International Peace Movement Mission lived onsite as its caretaker, keeping away graffiti artists and urban explorers. But when it was sold to a foreign investor in 2006, it was gutted, sold for scrap, and left for dead.

That's when the elements took over. 

To those unfamiliar with a Divine Lorraine before it was tagged with "BONER FOREVER," or unfamiliar with cities before the 21st Century, the dumpy hotel wasn't unusual. In fact, the only thing strange about the Divine Lorraine were its owners - the cult of Father Divine - and the fact that it had remained in near-original condition. 

As a hotel, the city was full of similar budget beds, even in nice Center City neighborhoods. Throughout the late 20th Century, places like the Adelphia House and the Spruce Parker offered similarly sparse amenities for a few bucks a night, or a few more for the week or month. 

Perhaps it was the cult's rules - such as no "undo mixing of the sexes," no alcohol or drugs, and a strict dress code - that kept its tenants respectful and the structure intact. Even in its current state, though, the Divine Lorraine holds an air of mystery and a unique sense of optimism for this otherwise struggling corridor, especially amongst those who remember seeing its lights on. 

For fifteen years, most developers have only seen it as blight, but residents have seen divinity. But in the last few years, the Divine Lorraine has even seemed to enrapture even some of the most bottom-lined developers. In 2012, Eric Blumenfeld purchased the property and has been promising to redevelop it ever since. Having developed several other properties on North Broad, Blumenfeld has a vested interest in the corridor. But he has also expressed a passionate interest in the Divine Lorraine itself. Like Blumenfeld, Billy Procida, a developer who helped reinvent New York's Hell's Kitchen, was equally wooed by the Divine Lorraine, and agreed to contribute $30M towards its renovation.

So what now? Well, like the Divine Lorraine, we wait. It's impossible to know what will happen if and when the Divine Lorraine reopens its doors. Ridge Avenue has gradually been getting redeveloped from both the east and west, inching its way towards the Divine Lorraine, so now seems as good as time as any to get started. 

What will happen to the properties along North Broad pose the bigger questions. Even with four restaurants planned for Divine Lorraine, will it foster an island of development at this lone intersection, or will it encourage more developers to get on board. After all, the Divine Lorraine isn't the only landmark laying in wait. The fate of the Metropolitan Opera House is unknown and the Inquirer Building has sat empty since the newspaper moved to Market East. It seems everyone is waiting to see what will happen to the Divine Lorraine. 

In a city that's no stranger to demolishing our aging landmarks for speculative development, the most unique page in the Divine Lorraine's history book may be that no one, not one developer has proposed its demolition. For decades, it was a jewel in the crown of North Broad and the International Peace Movement Mission's portfolio of historic architecture. Perhaps Father Divine is still watching over his Divine Lorraine Hotel.

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