Amy Magida Explores Philly Landmarks
Once upon a time, elephants paraded into the Metropolitan Opera House and the Divine Lorraine stood regally ten stories above North Broad Street in Philadelphia. A fantastical quality remains in these two buildings that has outlasted entertainment trends, housing fashions and urban shifts that led to the general decline of the surrounding neighborhood and the near demise of these two landmarks. I had the opportunity to explore these iconic structures on a tour led by Hidden City Philadelphia and learn about their storied pasts and aspirations for the future.
The Divine Lorraine is a Philadelphia legend, if not for its striking architecture than for its resilience. Designed by Willis G. Hale in 1894, the building originally housed Philadelphia’s affluent members of high society. It transitioned into an upscale hotel, known as Lorraine Hotel, before being purchased in 1948 by Father Divine. After adding his moniker to the building, the hotel was opened to people of all races and economic classes. Under his direction residents adhered to strict attire and behavior rules mandated by the church. Community social services such as inexpensive meals served to those in need or affordable rooms were provided. The building closed in 1999 and was eventually sold to developer Eric Blumenfeld of EB Realty Management in 2012.
Beyond redeveloping the Divine Lorraine into 126 housing units, Blumenfeld proposes regenerating portions of North Broad Street between City Hall and Temple University. Though parts of his plan are still in the infantile stages of development, such as proposing several new public schools that re-imagine public and private educational partnerships, new housing projects, and restaurant ventures are already constructed.
Halfway between the Divine Lorraine and Temple University is the Metropolitan Opera House. A partnership between church, community, and developer, rather than the vision of a sole party, the Opera House occupies nearly an entire city block. This massive white structure does little to draw attention to itself from the street—the spectacle is concealed within.
An ambitious showman who possessed a zealous passion for opera, Oscar Hammerstein built the 4,000 seat opera house in 1908, the largest in the world at the time. The stage is said to be the size of a basketball court and the orchestra pit so cavernous that the Broad Street Subway line rumbles audibly from within it. Opera was in the midst of a revival, but debt and a vision perhaps too grandiose for the time made for just a few opera seasons. Over the course of several decades the Opera House was home to a silent movie theater, ballroom, and sports venue. In 1995 it was proposed that the building be torn down and turned into a parking lot.
After learning of this project, and with only a few weeks to secure funds, Pastor Hatcher of Holy Ghost Headquarters purchased the building in 1996 and quickly made it habitable and safe for his church congregants. A blue tarp is draped over a portion of the theater and immensely deep stage. The church meets below the tarp in a comfortable room with blue carpeting and stackable chairs. Like a building surreally encased inside another building, the theater wraps the church and hides behind the blue tarp.
Part of the church’s mission is devoted to saving the opera house and they are open to Blumenfeld’s partnership given the immensity of the undertaking. The size and large seating capacity of the theater present programmatic challenges that will have to be creatively met.
In interviews Blumenfeld readily admits that “gentrification” is approaching North Broad Street, if it hasn’t already. Though this word might make some cringe and others wealthy it signifies an undeniable turning point for this area. Blumenfeld has certainly aroused enthusiasm and a mixture of support and skepticism but it should be remembered that his plans for these landmarks and the surrounding neighborhood are still in the early and imaginative “what if” stages. What if a derelict building could be new again; what if a blighted neighborhood could be trendy? What if we could educate a generation entirely different than we have before; what if we could live in places previously thought to be unlivable? Though he faces contention, compromise, and setbacks in the coming years, Blumenfeld‘s drive for urban transformation is compulsory and this neighborhood is prepared to take it on.