Because this new neighborhood was north of the Market Street railroad viaduct, the city’s old elite, who clustered around Rittenhouse Square, deemed it declassé. Yet North Broad Street was convenient for rich industrialists for two reasons. First, many of their factories and mills were located in adjacent industrial areas; a North Broad Street residence gave its entrepreneurial owner easy access to his thriving enterprises. Second, the area’s main developer was streetcar magnate Peter Arrell Brown Widener, a brilliant, self-made former butcher who was the kingpin of Philadelphia’s nineteenth century industrial and real estate boom. Widener’s massive Germanic mansion at 1200 North Broad—at the center of his city land holdings–was as much a real estate advertisement as a monument to his own taste.
As a response to these snubs, one-time farm boys from New Jersey and Jewish immigrants from Frankfurt formed their own clubs and institutions. North Broad Street was analogous to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which was developed at exactly the same time. For Philadelphia’s nouveaux riches, a brick Rittenhouse Square rowhouse might have been the more “proper” and “traditional” option, but a freestanding, ornate mansion on North Broad was the more “fun” and “modern” one.
Inspired by the success of the Dakota, Philadelphia developers built apartment hotels of their own. The Lorraine (at Fairmount Avenue) and the Majestic (at Girard Avenue) were two such structures that graced North Broad Street. The Lorraine, designed by Willis Hale and finished in 1894, was the more architecturally cohesive of the two. Built of yellow Pompeian brick, the Lorraine soared ten stories above the neighborhood — the first high-rise residential structure in Philadelphia. Many of the suites boasted fireplaces. The ground floor contained a columned lobby and twin lounges. Perched on the tenth floor were two barrel vaulted ballrooms, whose high arched windows provided spectacular views of the city.
Sadly, the Majestic was pulled down (old Elkins mansion and all) in 1971, but not before its façade had been mutilated by storefronts. In 1948, Father Divine, spiritual leader of the Peace Mission, purchased the Lorraine for the bargain basement price of $485,000. After adding his name and a red neon sign to the building, he transformed it into the first racially-integrated hotel in the United States. iv Abandoned since 2003, it survives, but the Divine Lorraine is a soot-smeared, gutted ghost of its former self.
The exuberant Gilded Age grandeur (or swagger) of North Broad Street proved all too fleeting. Today, almost all of North Broad Street’s social and residential gems have fallen to the wrecker’s ball. A few remnants of past glory – a score of crumbling rowhouses, a rotting old hotel, and a few heavily altered mansions – remind passersby of a time when North Broad Street was the street of dreams of Philadelphia’s Gilded Age.
[i] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.53.
[ii] Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphian: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press), 1963, p.529
[iii] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia – University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2002), p.90-91.
[iv] Mike Newall, “Left Behind: A Rare Look inside North Broad’s Divine Lorraine, a hotel with a heavenly past on the cusp of a (commercial) resurrection,” The Philadelphia City Paper, January 13-19, 2005. http://citypaper.net/articles/2005-01-13/cover.shtml Accessed June 1, 2010.
[v] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: Philadelphia’s Broad Street, South and North (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2003, p.104.
[vi] Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: Philadelphia’s Broad Street, South and North (Charleston, South Carolina: The Arcadia Press, 2003, p.98.
[vii] Nathaniel Burt, The Perennial Philadelphian: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press), 1963, p.571.