The Lost World of North Broad Street

Mention North Broad Street today, and the image that comes to mind is one of desolation and decay. But in the late nineteenth century, this thoroughfare was a boulevard for the Gilded Age industrial rich. Rittenhouse Square might have been Philadelphia’s most prestigious residential address, but North Broad Street was arguably the most colorful and fanciful. There was a Frank Furness-designed temple for Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Willis Hale-designed baroque castle for Peter Widener, and the world’s largest opera house designed by William H. McElfatrick. These large structures, to borrow a phrase from architectural historian Robert Morris Skaler, were “great exclamation points” on the brownstone and brick streetscape.i Most of these structures proved to be as ephemeral as they were exuberant.

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.

For aggressive, driven men like Widener, the “Workshop of the World” offered endless ways to make a fortune. The city was a Victorian Silicon Valley, a laboratory for entrepreneurship and technology. Widener himself diversified his holdings into shipping, manufacturing, gas lines, and real estate. By 1900, he was the richest man in Philadelphia, worth over $100 million. Many of those who bought homes near the Widener mansion were also poor boys who had struck it rich—such as the swashbuckling promoter William Warren Gibbs, a one-time business partner of Widener’s who lived at 1216 North Broad. Gibbs was said to sit on more boards of directors than any other man in America. The area was also popular with German Jews who, despite their wealth and culture, were shunned by the Philadelphia establishment. The social discrimination against Jew and gentile denizens of North Broad Street ran deep and lasted long after their descendants had decamped to the suburbs. As one social chronicler observed, it took “families such as the Wideners several generations and removals to live down the fact that they had not merely had a house but a mansion on North Broad Street. The bigger the house, the more flagrant the offense.” ii

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.

One modern residential concept pioneered on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was the so-called apartment hotel. One of the first of its kind was the Dakota Apartments on New York’s Central Park West, completed in 1885 and a huge financial success. These buildings were luxury apartment buildings with the amenities and service of a grand hotel. Suites of rooms often came fully furnished and usually included servants quarters. Well-to-do families or unmarried people who did not want the burden of a townhouse found this to be a convenient arrangement. In addition, the hotel’s ample ballrooms could accommodate bigger parties than most private city homes.

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.

Further up North Broad Street, the architects of the Majestic cleverly incorporated the old William Lukens Elkins mansion into their establishment. The original brownstone house—which boasted a pillared facade similar to the Union League’s–contained the main public rooms, while high rise towers on the south and east sides of the lot housed the guest rooms.iii

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.

Along with hotels, private clubs were key fixtures of North Broad Street social life. Since many North Broad Street residents were excluded from older establishments, they set up their own clubs that were just as grand as their Center City counterparts. v One such establishment was the Columbia Club, a turreted Queen Anne structure built in 1889 at 1600 North Broad Street. A massive flying eagle crowned its balconied façade. The most imposing of the North Broad Street clubs was the Mercantile Club, once located at the intersection of North Broad and Jefferson Streets. The membership consisted primarily of German Jewish families such as the Gimbels and the Snellenburgs (owners of big Center City department stores), as well as prominent attorneys and professionals. The luxurious facility boasted public spaces such as a Turkish smoking room. vi Oddly enough, the Mercantile Club was reluctant to admit Jews of non-German ancestry until the 1920s. Albert Greenfield, an immigrant from the Ukraine and the largest real estate operator in the city, was nearly blackballed. vii

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.

References:

[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.

This entry was posted in Neighborhoods. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Categories

  • Archives