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Special Report: Preserving the City's Past II

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By Alan Jaffe

Everyday we walk or drive past buildings that once defined the Philadelphia skyline and continue to serve as important markers of the city's history.

But many are lost in the long battles to protect them and slow death by neglect.  

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, the nonprofit that acts as public steward and advocate for the region's historic resources, named the Divine Lorraine to its Endangered Properties List this year. The building is now boarded and vandalized, but she was once a majestic presence on North Broad Street.

Innovative architect Willis Hale designed the Lorraine Apartments in the French Renaissance Revival style in the mid-1890s, and its early tenants were the city's nouveau riche. Luxury features in one of the city's first high-rises (10 stories) included electrical and telephone service. The Rev. Major J. Divine bought the building in 1948, christened her the Divine Lorraine, and transformed her into the city's first racially integrated hotel. She also served as the Divine Peace Mission's civil rights, religious and business center.

Divine Lorraine Hotel.jpgThe Lorraine has been vacant, however, since 2000, when Father Divine's followers sold the building. The current owner, a Dutch company with no offices in the U.S., demolished much of the interior, removed historic elements, and then ceased construction of a planned residential complex. The company has shown no interest in maintaining or protecting the building, the Preservation Alliance reports.

Another familiar city site awaiting rescue is the Boyd Theatre, the Art Deco movie palace on the 1900 block of Chestnut Street. Not much remains of the theater's marquee and façade, but her interior - including etched glass mirrors, painted proscenium, ornate ceiling, carpets and chandeliers -- is still intact, reports the preservation group Friends of the Boyd.

The theater opened in 1928 and screened some of the great films of the 20th century, including Gone With the Wind and The Good Earth. Grace Kelly attended opening night of High Noon at the Boyd. Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington were there for the premiere of Philadelphia.

Boyd Theater.jpgThe Boyd's future seemed bright last summer, when Howard Haas, president of the Friends group, announced developer Hal Wheeler planned to fully restore the theater as part of a larger hotel project at the site. Then in late January, Wheeler, 54, died of heart failure.

But, Haas said, Wheeler's brother Bill is continuing the company's effort to assemble funds for the acqusition, restoration and reopening of the Boyd.

"Indeed, it is important that Philadelphia's last surviving premiere movie palace, which has been acclaimed as an Art Deco masterpiece and included in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's most endangered list, be preserved, fully restored and reopened for entertainment," Haas said.

Two blocks west of the Boyd Theatre is an architectural gem of another era. The Sidney Hillman Medical Center is one of many Modernist buildings in Philadelphia, some designed by world renowned architects, that are overshadowed by the city's wealth of Colonial and 19th century structures. "The buildings of the post-World War II years are now prime targets for removal because they are technically obsolete and somewhat out of fashion," explained Frank Matero, a Penn professor of architecture and former chair of its graduate program in historic preservation. "They're neither old enough to be heritage nor new enough to be current."

The Hillman's pink gneiss and creamy yellow limestone exterior walls run at a diagonal, rather than parallel, to Chestnut Street, a quirky geometric experiment by designer Louis Magaziner. The building is named for Sidney Hillman, who erected medical centers and Hillman Medical jpghousing for the benefit of apparel industry workers, adding to its historical pedigree.

But the John Buck Company, of Chicago, plans to replace the Hillman with a 32-story apartment building, retail space, café, garage and new medical center. So far the company has won its zoning battles and received approval from the Philadelphia Historical Commission for the demolition of the Hillman.

Sometimes the battles to preserve historic structures are won, but the buildings don't survive the lengthy fight and restoration process.

The Garrett-Dunn House, a well-known if disheartening site on Germantown Avenue in West Mt. Airy for many years, was designed in the 1850s by preeminent architect Thomas Ustick Walter, who also designed the dome of the U.S. Capitol, Founders Hall at Girard College, and the Biddle estate, Andalusia.

 The house had been vacant and deteriorating for decades, and when developer John Capoferri purchased the property a few years ago, residents welcomed his plans for a luxury condo complex that included preserving the historic structure. But when the bottom fell out of the real estate market in 2008, Capoferri lost his financing and abandoned the renovation at mid-point, leaving open lathwork exposed to the weather, a half-finished roof, and windows without glass.

At the urging of the preservation community, the building was inspected and found to be unsafe and was eventually sealed and shored up. The owner, meanwhile, was arrested for theft, bad checks, intimidating a witness, terroristic threats and other charges unrelated to the historic property. It seemed, however, that the house was protected for the time being.

On Aug. 2, 2009, the Garrett-Dunn House was struck by lightning and destroyed by flames.

 

Part III: Happy endings for some historic landmarks.

 

Photos:

Masthead: Garrett-Dunn House

Photo 1: The Divine Lorraine Hotel

Photo 2: Exterior of the Boyd Theater

Photo 3: Hillman Medican Center

 

 

 

 

 

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